Schreyer Scholar looking to apply machine learning to track viral diseases


By Jeff Rice

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Chris Vo knows it can be easy to get caught up in the stress of grades or exams. But the Schreyer Scholar and computer science major tries not to lose sight of his larger academic goal.

“For me, coming to college was about learning as much as possible both in and outside of the classroom,” he said. “Besides understanding the material, how can I apply this knowledge? Can I see the bigger picture? Can I apply this to real life?”

For his honors thesis, Vo sought to apply his growing interest in machine learning and neural networks to a timely real-life problem: the COVID-19 pandemic. Using current data from The New York Times and other sources, Vo studied a case-prediction model by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and created his own model that is used to track and predict case numbers on college campuses around the nation.

Though Vo, who is still poring through mounds of data, is the first to admit his model isn’t yet complete, he is hopeful that eventually it can be used to help prevent the spread of the virus at hand — or viruses yet to come.

“If there were to be another pandemic in the near future,” he said, “I believe that this kind of research will be quite helpful in pinpointing what specific measures need to be taken by universities in order to prevent cases from spreading rapidly.”

Vo’s model incorporates factors such as the political leanings of the states the universities are in, the universities’ student enrollment, and the universities’ policies on the number of fans allowed to attend sporting events in person.

“I believe it will be important for people in positions of leadership at universities to understand what kind of guidelines need to be set for next semester and during times where a similar health crisis may arise,” Vo said.

“If there’s a large correlation between having in-person sporting events with 10-20,000 people and hundreds to thousands of cases, then colleges may have to rethink their guidelines in the future. Even though having fans attend games helps a college financially, the health and safety of students must be prioritized. It’s a challenging balancing act but one that must be considered carefully.”

Vo’s thesis supervisor is Lingzhou Xue, associate professor of statistics and associate director of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences. Xue encouraged him to examine the free-source python code used in the Berkeley model and use it to inform his own model. He has been impressed with Vo’s adherence to the timeline and meets with him regularly via Zoom.

“Usually, a student starts from a real-life problem and goes to the literature,” Xue said. “Then you have to find your own angle and your own motivation. In the future, if he decides to go into industry or think about one day going back to study, it’ll help him.”

Vo will graduate this May and then head to Seattle, where he will begin work as a program manager for Microsoft. He said an email exchange with Scholar alumnus Brandon Leshchinskiy, currently a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has encouraged him to consider the human impact of his work.

“I try to look at how can I apply technology to help people?” Vo said. “That has been at the forefront of my drive to do research and tackle these big problems. That’s kind of what motivates me to take on a problem of this magnitude.”

“I often reflect about how I can apply technology to make a positive difference in the world. Besides implementing the technical skills, the other part of the equation is having empathy and compassion for people. That has been at the forefront of my drive to do research and tackle a problem of this complexity. The pandemic has caused several challenges — both financially and emotionally — for college students and their families. If my research can help make college campuses safer, it will be one of the most rewarding projects I have completed in college.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.


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Megan Lakatos

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Penn State senior Christopher Vo is a Schreyer Scholar and computer science major. IMAGE: PROVIDED BY CHRISTOPHER VO