Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU

I’m one of of the faculty mentors for the Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU program, which I originally talked about here. Two of our five students are working with me on a project this summer. We are a three-woman dream team!

We are studying mathematical models of how organisms coexist and compete while using the same resources in an ecosystem. There are a variety of ways that organisms use resources. For example, plants need nitrate and phosphate to grow, and without sufficient quantities of both of these nutrients, the plant will die. On the other hand, humans can get energy for daily activities from carbohydrates, protein or fats. If we don’t have carbohydrates, we can substitute some protein or fat and get by; for the sake of providing us with energy, we need any one of these, but we don’t need all. Modeling has been used with multiple organisms using one type of nutrient utilization, but not a lot with multiple organisms having multiple ways of utilizing nutrients. That’s what we are working on.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Thus far, we’ve reproduced some results from existing models with a common type of nutrient utilization; in particular, we’ve shown how one organism can outcompete others for the same resources, and how two organisms can coexist even though they both utilize the same resources. We are working on learning some of the background science of how organisms use resources and the equations and mathematics associated with this. We are performing a literature review to familiarize ourselves with what research has been done in the past and has been published recently. We are learning what types of questions scientists are interested in and have answered in the past, and also figuring out where we can make a novel contribution. And, given that we are a mathematics program, it won’t surprise you to learn that we are developing the equations we need to make the modifications required to the model we have so that we can do something new.

The other three students in our program have interesting problems to work on as well. Two are working on mathematical models for how atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs and how diet and exercise might improve arterial health. One student is working on mathematical models for controlling invasive species; personally, I am hoping he will find a way to mitigate the spread of fireants.

Heart of the Matter

I got the rare opportunity a few months ago to sit in on a video shoot with one of our fairly new and absolutely dynamic professors in the Department of Chemistry, Karen Wooley. I’ve never been so glad that I for once seized the day, because soon after leaving my usual seat, I found myself sitting on the edge of quite another.

For proper context, I’ve had the privilege of writing a few press releases on Dr. Wooley’s work, but in all cases (mostly due to her busy travel schedule and the basic convenience of mine) those exchanges occurred via email. Suffice it to say in-person is invaluable and that I had no idea what I was missing. To be in her presence is to know the pure joy she radiates — about her science, her students and broader lab group, their shared “ah-ha” moments big and small in the name of curiosity as catalyst of discovery, the overall give-and-take of knowledge generation, being at Texas A&M University, etc.

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

Karen Wooley (seated at center), enjoying a light-hearted moment with members of her research group between takes during a video/photography shoot in her Texas A&M Chemistry laboratory. (Credit: Robb Kendrick/Texas A&M Foundation.)

I learned three things in that hour, and to the surprise of a gal who struggled through two years of premed before changing majors to journalism, even a little chemistry in the process:

  1. Karen Wooley enjoys her work, and there’s a lot of it to love. The sheer volume of projects she has going on would make your head spin. And that’s before she rattles off the myriad federal agencies and industry leaders who fund and support it. In short, she believes — in herself, her group, her department/university and her profession’s potential — and that contagious confidence not only shows, it produces results. And more grants. And more breakthrough discoveries. And more excitement. Talk about a pretty picture that needs no storyboard!
  2. Karen Wooley gets frustrated. Newsflash: Scientists are people, too. Even though I know this and try my best to convey it in every story I write, I have to admit I never fully thought about the everyday struggles involved in and incumbent upon being a research group leader. While I joke that I only get to write in my spare time, the same holds true for high-flying chemists, whose responsibilities as de facto CEOs of what amounts to a small corporation likewise take away from their true love — actual bench time. There’s no “i” in team. Nor is there one in “laboratory” or “research.” Interesting parallel.
  3. Karen Wooley has trouble defining success. After nearly a solid hour of providing non-stop detail on the countless projects and personnel that encompass Team Wooley (and revealing that some of the best breakthroughs indeed happen by accident — or, to put it more accurately, under the expert watch of someone with the right combination of experience, knowledge and curiosity necessary to first recognize and then to play out the possibilities), it was a wrap. I saw my window and jumped, rendering Dr. Wooley speechless for the first and only time that afternoon with one spontaneous question: “How do you define success?” Granted, it was neither in the pre-shoot list nor entirely fair. The trite job-interview equivalent of “Where do you see yourself in five years?” which always makes me chuckle as I think of the stock “in-your-job” answer that runs through my mind but for once not out my mouth. For the record, my standard answer is “happy.” And although Dr. Wooley never said as much, she didn’t have to, considering it was obvious to all present in the room.

A wrap, indeed, and all in my ideal kind of day’s work.

Research Experiences for Undergraduates

It’s summertime in Aggieland, and one thing that means is an influx of students from across the United States participating in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grants at the university. The Math Department is only one of many National Science Foundation-funded REU sites at Texas A&M. The Math department has been running an REU site every summer since the program was started in 1999.  This summer, we have 14 students, 8 women and 6 men, with us for 8 weeks.  Five students are participating in the program in Number Theory, five in Mathematical Modeling in Biology, and four in Algorithmic Algebraic Geometry.  The Algebraic Geometry group is supplemented by two local undergraduates.

REU students and mentors, summer 2013

REU students and mentors, summer 2013

Students generally have lectures and homework to deal with for the first two weeks of the program. This familiarizes them with the foundational mathematics they will need for the research problems they’ll be working on.  By the middle of the second week, they are given research problems and get started trying to solve them.

This past Friday, the last day of the second week of the program, all the students and mentors in our REU got together for lunch. Students gave short presentations describing their research problems. At the end of the fourth and sixth weeks of the program, we’ll get updates from everyone on their projects. At the end of the eighth week of the program, we have a Minisymposium, where all our REU students present their results.

The Rest of the Stories

FranklinQuoteEver feel like there’s more to the story when reading an article on a particular topic, person or program in higher education? So do we. In fact, more often than not, we know it for a fact and would love to share that knowledge, except there’s no place for it in the press release.

Behold, this blog! In addition to our usual fare of news and feature stories available on our official website to highlight all the latest breakthoughs, accomplishments and milestones of note for our faculty, staff and students, we will attempt to bring you occasional bonus coverage showcasing other news that’s equally fit to print — from tidbits and testimony, to anecdotes and insights, to stuff that we find just plain interesting. After all, when it comes to motivation, we writers are in it much for the same reasons as our subjects here in Texas A&M Science — curiosity.

In the meantime, chew on this noteworthy nugget: Many of our subjects are just as curious about writing as they are about math and science, and (go figure) they’re equally as good at it. We hear good things come to those who wait, so stay tuned as we add both entries and voices in hopes of broadening your perspective of all things Texas A&M Science!