The Center for Experiential Learning and Diversity

Jeff Eaton

Venture Scholar

Major(s): Sociology
Project: Investigating the demographic impacts of HIV epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa using mathematical models


jeffeatonWhere did you graduate from high school?
I attended Roosevelt High School in Seattle before I came to UW.

Why did you decide to come to the UW?
My options were to spend more time in high school, or come to UW through the Robinson Center’s Academy for Young Scholars program.  I was looking for a more intellectually stimulating environment and UW has more than provided this for me.

What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
I enjoy cycling, playing squash and ultimate Frisbee.  I like dancing (modern and salsa).  I also play the double bass and have played in the UW Symphony, UW jazz combos, and other community orchestras around town.

What are your interests?
Academically, I am interested in mathematical modeling of infectious disease epidemics, demography and health and development, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, data management systems and statistical methodologies for analyzing social science data.

How did you first become involved in your project?
At the end of my sophomore year I took a course in Demographic Methods from a Sam Clark, a sociology professor.  After I spent nearly every Monday afternoon at his office hours, I think that Professor Clark decided that he might as well get some work out of me and agreed to mentor me for a research project.  The next year we worked together to model the potential impact of male circumcision interventions in for the HIV epidemic (shortly before this, a clinical trial in South Africa had shown that circumcised men are 60% less likely to acquire HIV than uncircumcised men).  Following this project, Professor Clark arranged for me to go to South Africa where I worked at the Agincourt Health & Population Unit, a rural demographic surveillance site in the northeastern region of the country.  Here I worked on a variety of projects including creating a model of the local HIV epidemic, investigating the influence of temporary labor migration on children’s educational outcomes, and managing and developing demographic data systems.

Why did you decide to begin/work on your project?
Since I began at the university, I have struggled to reconcile my interest in social issues and my passion for mathematics.  I saw Professor Clark’s HIV modeling work, and more broadly the material in his Demographic Methods course as an avenue through which I could use my mathematical skills to pursue research that had implications for important real-world problems.

What is rewarding about your project?
The most rewarding aspects of my work is seeing how the research and modeling that we do is utilized to understand social phenomena and inform policy decisions aimed at resolving disparities and improving well-being.

What is difficult/challenging about your project?
The most challenging aspect of my work is probably that people simply don’t always behave predictably.  This is what makes modeling anything involving social phenomena particularly challenging (and some would argue futile).  The fact that people do not behave predictably has implications for all aspects of my work from data collection (sometimes the data you collect is not the data you intended or expected to collect!) to model formulation to drawing conclusions and policy implications from the model.

What are your plans after graduation?
After graduation, I hope to attend graduate school to study mathematical modeling of disease epidemics and develop statistical methodologies for incorporating more data sources into model estimates.  Eventually I think that I would like to have a research job working for or collaborating with international organizations interested in health and development.

Is there anything that you haven’t mentioned that you’d like other students to know about either yourself or your project/words of advice or encouragement/etc.?
Advice that I would give to other students is to go to your professor’s office hours and find out what they are really interested in.  You will find that they rarely are asked about their research by undergraduate students, and are usually eager to discuss it with you.  Make sure to find a mentor whose work you are personally interested in and who you get along with well.  A good personal relationship is very helpful for maintaining a strong working relationship (in my experience at least).

Also be sure to reserve time in your schedule for working on your research.  It does take time, and often moves much more slowly than we are used to in our 10-week long courses.  Don’t be discouraged if you feel like you’ve been working for two quarters and haven’t accomplished anything!  In my experience, things move in leaps and bounds, but sometimes it can be painful searching for the next inspiration.