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Harvard senior sets his record straight

Lauded for retracting a flawed study he published at age 17

Nathan Georgette, a senior at Harvard, aims to be a doctor who treats patients with tuberculosis and HIV infection.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Nathan Georgette, a senior at Harvard, aims to be a doctor who treats patients with tuberculosis and HIV infection.

At 17, Nathan Georgette published his first scientific paper, in the ­Internet Journal of Epidemiology. Published in 2007, it was a large factor in his submission to the ­Davidson Institute for Talent Development, which awarded him a $10,000 scholarship and named him a fellow.

“His research represents a new approach to understanding the dynamic effects of infectious disease spread and gradual immunization,” the Davidson Institute wrote.

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While taking a course about ordinary and partial differential equations this year at Harvard University, where he is a senior studying applied mathematics, Georgette realized he had made a crucial mistake in his calculations in his research for the paper.

The approach “was fundamentally flawed,” he said, and after contacting the editorial board of the Journal of Epidemiology, Georgette retracted the paper.

 Nathan Georgette, a Harvard senior, uses math to model HIV’s behavior to better understand its resistance to drugs.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

Nathan Georgette, a Harvard senior, uses math to model HIV’s behavior to better understand its resistance to drugs.

Though he said admitting his mistake was difficult, Georgette “knew what the right thing to do was.”

Errors are part of science, but many researchers are not as diligent about setting the record straight, said the cofounder of a blog that tracks retractions of scientific papers.

“His youth and forthrightness stood out,” said Dr. Ivan Oransky, cofounder of Retraction Watch and an executive editor at Reuters Health. “This is the youngest person we’ve ever covered.”

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When Oransky first heard about the retraction, he thought the author was a teacher at the high school Georgette, a Floridian, had attended, because the school was affiliated with the paper. “Wow, this kid is like 22 or something,” he said. “That is pretty impressive.”

Oransky also pointed to the student’s transparency during the process. “Nobody caught this . . . There were trained people who should have [found the mistake].” In e-mails, he said, Georgette “responded completely and fully” to his questions, whereas many scientists drag their feet and are reluctant to give deeper information about their work.

“It would have been really easy for him to let this paper just sit in the literature,” Oransky said. “My feeling is that this speaks well to his future.”

In high school, Georgette published three papers. The ­error in the first did not affect the other two, though Georgette said they were on a similar topic.

He said he taught himself the math he used in the paper and did not realize his mistake until formally learning the material at Harvard this year.

“I worked on this mathematical model that described a number of vaccines to describe the turndown of an epidemic,” he said. “I made an implicit ­assumption that I didn’t notice at the time.”

That assumption, which dealt with time, caused fundamental errors that Georgette said voided the conclusions of the paper.

“If I were to revisit it, I would try to bring all the tools that I learned in my undergrad education and take a different approach,” he said.

While applying to medical school, Georgette is working on his thesis. He is using math to model HIV’s behavior in an individual, with the hope of better understanding the risks of the virus becoming resistant to drugs.

“Unlike those previous papers, I’m collaborating with experts in the field on this,” he said. “It’s always nice to try to produce something new that you have greater confidence in. . . . It’s great to have the chance to execute it properly this time.”

Georgette said he hopes to become an infectious disease doctor, treating patients with HIV and tuberculosis.

“That’s what I’m focusing on,” he said. “Right the errors that I made in the past and focus on improving what I’m doing in the present and future.”

Allison Knothe can be reached at aknothe@globe.com.

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