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Applied Math Professors Expanding Knowledge About Biology

April 8, 2013

Professor Suzanne Sindi found her calling in seventh grade, while reading “Jurassic Park.”

“I liked the idea that math is a tool for understanding the whole world,” she said.

Her colleague, Professor Karin Leiderman, wants to understand how people’s bodies work.

They are using math to understand biological functions that are familiar to everyone, yet still mysterious.

Their interdisciplinary research – mathematical biology – is an example of how UC Merced researchers are changing the way people view the world.

For example, Leiderman models the process of blood clotting to see what’s happening as blood flows.

“We know coagulation is a series of chemical reactions,” she said, “but how does blood flow affect these reactions and the way that clots form? We know clots can stop growing, but how? What prevents them from growing too large?”

Both professors, who joined UC Merced last fall, are trying to model biological functions as they happen live, rather than with their components isolated in test tubes.

Sindi is examining how prions – transmissible pathogens – cause proteins to deform and infect other proteins, creating a misfolding domino effect.  

Prion diseases like Mad Cow disease are always fatal in mammals, but they are not fatal to yeasts, which Sindi uses as a platform to model to help figure out how to treat and cure such diseases.

Using applied math to model these biological functions allows a kind of in-depth study that might not otherwise be possible.

“You can’t go around infecting people or cutting them,” Sindi joked.

But it is important to understand these complex processes in detail, Leiderman said, and through their modeling, they are trying to address big questions by building tools to solve these riddles.

“I like thinking about science that way,” she said.

That kind of thinking characterizes the group of applied mathematicians at UC Merced.

Not all are biologists, but “we all want to study scientific questions,” Sindi said. In fact, like the other applied math researchers at UC Merced, Leiderman and Sindi have a wide range of interests, including fluid dynamics, cell mechanics, flow and transport in porous materials, evolution and human genetic variation.

Ultimately, their work will contribute to a growing body of knowledge about how biological systems function.

“I just want to learn more about how we work,” Leiderman said. “Why aren’t we just piles of goo on the floor?”