What They Learned: Nyla Robinson ’21

The mathematics major and economics minor used her thesis to model the spread of COVID-19 in prisons and discuss ethics in mathematical research.

The COVID-19 pandemic devastated the world’s most vulnerable people, many of whom are incarcerated. Nyla Robinson, a mathematics major and economics minor, used her thesis to model the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Her thesis, “Modelling Prison Population Dynamics Using Applied Epidemiology Models: An Exploration of the Mathematician’s Ethical Responsibility When Conducting Mathematical Research,” was driven by personal passions. “I was inspired to model different prison population dynamics by my interest in using mathematics and my thesis to support activist work and organizing involving prison abolition and decarceration,” she said.  

The first semester of her thesis work involved choosing a mathematical model to study, alter and run simulations on, but Robinson found major issues in her model, causing her to reroute her thesis’ direction.

“After choosing a model and studying it throughout the first semester, I came to the conclusion that the underlying assumptions the authors made were harmful and could not be removed, therefore making it unethical to use the model at all,” said Robinson. “This not only inspired me to completely switch to a different model during the second semester but to also incorporate a discussion on the ethics and implications of the mathematical research we produce throughout my paper.”

Robinson fit her model to data on the Pennsylvania prison population provided by the Marshall Project, and simulated the COVID-19 spread based on the assumptions that no outside factors would intervene (mass decarceration, mass abolition, vaccine distribution in prisons, etc.). She realized, however, that, regardless of the numbers and equations used in her mathematical models, the heart of her work was humanity. 

“Mathematical research is never conducted in an isolated, objective, or consequence-free manner,” she said. “Every aspect of our research, from our beginning assumptions to its real-world applications, is influenced by or influencing the world around us. We must always think of the implications of our research, the ways in which it can be used, and, especially, the ways in which it can cause or contribute to harm for others. Human beings are not objects or tools to be manipulated for an end goal such as reducing costs or driving profits. When conducting research involving or potentially impacting human beings and their lives, their well-being, and their rights, we must always treat the preservation of these things as the end goal. That is the mathematician’s responsibility.”

Robinson was advised by Assistant Professor Rebecca Everett, and she is grateful for Everett’s guidance and patience, especially when the project took a sudden turn. “Most importantly, when I expressed ethical concerns about the first model and paper, I was using and asked if it would be possible to completely change directions at the start of the second semester, Rebecca did not hesitate to encourage me and urge me to include a discussion about these ethical concerns and implications in my final paper,” said Robinson.

Robinson also worked with Assistant Professor Tarik Aougab, who helped expand her thesis’ ethical discussion and center the mathematical research around abolition. “Professor Aougab is also part of the Just Mathematics Collective, a collective of mathematicians calling for the severance of ties between the mathematics community and police and military state, that has recently asked mathematicians to pledge not to work with the National Security Agency in any capacity,” she said.  

What did you learn from working on your thesis? 
I learned a lot about systems of ordinary differential equations and the thought process behind developing assumptions, parameters, and variables for a mathematical model. My model and simulations mathematically show that incarcerated individuals are extremely vulnerable during the pandemic and other public health emergencies. There is no way to practice “social distancing” within a prison and incarcerated individuals are subject to extreme health and living conditions that increase the spread of disease compared to the general population. Incarceration during a pandemic is a matter of life and a lot of death.  

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.