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Mathematicians Helping Scientists Solve Mysteries of Chemistry and Biology

March 5, 2015

Section Lead In Photo

Biomathematics Advocates: Mathematics professors (from left) Dave Goulet, Mark Inlow, and Allen Holder have worked on several projects with science professors and students. (Photos by Shawn Spence)

As technology expands deeper into the nanosphere, any lines separating mathematics from science are becoming harder to observe, even with a microscope. For a growing number of Rose-Hulman professors and students, this represents educational and research opportunities of an exponential nature.

And, they’re having fun along the way.

Like many mathematics professors, Allen Holder’s undergraduate foray into the sciences was about as deep as most of his science-majoring friends were into problem solving. But given the explosion of research into areas like genomics, he’s found a career’s worth of work in the new field of computational biology.

“It’s been fun,” says Holder, PhD. He joined mathematics colleague Yosi Shibberu, PhD, in developing the fastest algorithm for protein analysis, enabling researchers to do in minutes that which had previously taken days. Their model has since been topped by a group of French researchers, but not by much, and perhaps not for long.

There’s a growing trend toward a seamless union of mathematics and science, one which could formalize into a new academic major of biomathematics. This area could make Rose-Hulman a national leader, and provide its graduates with skills in great demand by industry and academia.

Shibberu

Scientific Problem Solver: Mathematics professor Yosi Shibberu (featured) joined colleague Allen Holder in developing an algorithm to quickly analyze proteins.

Mark Brandt, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, points out that within the field of biology, the body of knowledge has finally reached a point where mathematics can be effectively applied. Whereas chemistry and, to a greater extent, physics have traditionally lent themselves to daily doses of math, biologists have long faced without the same mathematical rigor. He explains the partnership between engineers, mathematicians, and scientists is essential in the pursuit of advancements in research.

“In biochemistry right now, it has become very possible to sequence genomes,” Brandt says. This has assisted Brandt’s research of the human estrogen receptor hormone binding domain, which is a key element of cancer research. He remarked that while working in experimental biochemistry, scientists must work with mathematicians to understand what’s happening in the laboratory.

“How do you compare two three-dimensional objects? It’s not a trivial problem. Proteins are really complex objects,” remarks the chemistry professor. Computers aren’t conscious of what they’re measuring. So, the humans developing the computer programs have to balance the ability to design algorithms with an understanding of the material in question. Along the way, engineers are designing new tools to aid in this concept.

As with any new frontier, the realm of nanotechnology is one in which researchers are stumbling forward together in hopes of shedding scant light into research being conducted, metaphorically at least, in the dark.

“Biology is rough science when you get to this level. It’s hard,” Holder says, reiterating the fact that this work involves dynamic change and many unknowns.

Chem Profs

Working Together: Chemistry professors (from left) Daniel Morris, Mark Brandt, and Ross Weatherman have worked with other department faculty to make a variety of scientific discoveries.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Dave Goulet, PhD, didn’t take many biology classes during the course of his undergraduate studies at California Institute of Technology. It wasn’t until he began work on a doctorate degree in applied mathematics that his interest in science was piqued, and he began hanging around the laboratory, seeking new questions to challenge his mathematics modeling skills.

“I look at math as a new piece of lab equipment that biologists now have,” says Goulet, who has worked with Richard Anthony, PhD, associate professor of applied biology and biomedical engineering, to guide Rose-Hulman’s International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team participate in the premier intercollegiate synthetic biology competition.

The only honest way for biomathematics to work is for colleagues to hang out together, Goulet explained, with each side sharing the problems and questions for which the others might have answers.

Most of the time spent in these collaborations has the mathematicians and scientists learning the very different languages of their respective fields. Mathematical biology, Goulet asserts, is not a trend, but a future with unlimited opportunities.

Fellow mathematics professor and statistician Mark Inlow, PhD, agrees. His recent sabbatical at the Indiana University Center for Neuroimaging was the latest endeavor in a long career featuring the merging of mathematics and science.

“We live on the boundary between science and math,” he says of statistics. While crunching numbers may be quantitative in nature, the qualitative data involved is largely science- and technology-oriented. At IU, Inlow worked alongside computer scientists, physicists, electrical engineers, and psychologists in Alzheimer’s research at a genomic level.

“I look at math as a new piece of lab equipment that biologists now have.”
-   Dave Goulet, PhD
Associate Professor of Mathematics

Mathematical biology is not a trend, but a future with unlimited opportunities.