SIUE math major to present study on Vicodin research at international conference

Using math to help solve drug abuse is one of many areas of research Luke Settles could take when he begins his career as a biostatistician.

Applied mathematics major Luke Settles made a presentation on his research addressing Vicodin addiction at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Undergraduate Math Conference in Terre Haute, Ind. Settles is scheduled to make a poster presentation on the research at theMicro and Macro Systems in Life Sciences conference June 8-13 in Bedlewo, Poland. (Photo by Joseph Lacdan)

Settles presented on his senior project which analyzed how to reduce the number of Vicodin abusers at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Undergraduate Math Conference in Terre Haute, Ind., April 24-25.

During the 20-minute presentation, titled “Adjoint Sensitivity Analysis and Optimal Control: Mathematical Model of Vicodin Abuse,” the SIUE senior talked about how he applied sensitivity analysis to a mathematical model he used in his previous research. Working with the guidance of SIUE math professor Urszula Ledzewicz, Settles learned that using tools of optimal control simplified his earlier analysis and reinforced his findings that increasing prevention will help reduce abuse of the drug. Vicodin is a drug prescribed to treat varying levels of pain.

“It turned out that not only did (the approach) simplify the analysis, but it also pointed to some possible errors in the previous approach pursued,” Ledzewicz said.

Settles was accepted into the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, Mo., where he will pursue a Master’s degree in Applied Mathematics this fall. Settles, who has posted a 4.0 GPA as a dual Spanish and Applied math major, is president of SIUE’s chapter of Pi Mu Epsilon, a math honor society. From June 8-13, Settles will attend the Micro and Macro Systems in Life Sciences conference at the Stefan Banach International Mathematical Center in Bedlewo, Poland. The Springfield native will be one of two undergraduates presenting.

“He is an excellent student — very independent and innovative,” Ledzewicz said of Settles, who is scheduled to graduate May 9.

The SIUE senior developed a zest for mathematics while attending Rochester High School near Springfield. Before his freshman year at SIUE, Settles changed his major from mechanical engineering to applied mathematics to combine his two favorite subjects: math and science.

In the summer of 2013, Settles participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates at Arizona State University’s Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute in Tempe Ariz. For two months he worked with other undergraduate researchers on developing a mathematical problem that studied whether it would be more productive to increase the effectiveness of abuse treatment or the effectiveness of prevention.

“We’d learned a lot about modeling diseases – the spread of AIDS or other contagious diseases,” Settles said. “We were thinking about what kinds of things would interest us, so we thought about drug abuse as some disease that you could catch. We were sort of brainstorming what sorts of drugs (to study). We had known people who have had problems with Vicodin and really experienced how powerful it is and how dependent you can be on it pretty quickly.”

“It’s really hard to stop abusing Vicodin on your own. You need to seek treatment. So we kind of incorporated all these tendencies into our mathematical model.”

From his group research, Settles found that Vicodin abuse usually occurs with patients who are prescribed the drug for chronic pain. Settles said that patients who use the drug for longer periods of time are at increased risk to abuse it.  And once patients become dependent on the drug, they can suffer from withdrawal and often needs assistance coping with abuse, Settles said. Settles also said that creating awareness with doctors and patients could also help decrease Vicodin abuse.

“We use the term Vicodin abusers. Addiction was difficult for us to quantify,” Settles said. “Whereas abusers would kind of be someone who is taking it, they have a prescription but they’re not taking it in accordance with their prescription. Or they don’t have a prescription; they’re taking it recreationally. Most of the people we were seeing, the data showed that most of the time they had been using it chronically before becoming an abuser.”

For his senior project, Settles took a suggestion from Ledzewicz to use tools of optimal control and focus on the method of analysis. After successfully defending his senior thesis in a 40-minute presentation, the senior condensed the presentation to 20 minutes for at the Rose Holman Institute conference. Settles had previously presented his research on the Vicodin problem at conferences in San Antonio and Baltimore.

“I was looking at more of the mathematical theory of why this method works and how it’s connected to other problems in mathematics,” Settles said. “And then I applied this method to the Vicodin problem.”

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