UC Merced Connect: Math an aid in modeling maladies

April 9, 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 School of Natural Sciences 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 are trying to model biological functions as they happen live.

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

Prion diseases such as mad cow disease are fatal in mammals, but they are not 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.

Engineering a garden takes a community

As everyone knows, space is limited on campus.

But with a little money and a lot of persistence, Engineers for a Sustainable World has found a way to carve out a little room for a community garden.

The idea has been a dream of the Merritt Writing Program lecturer De Ette Silbaugh for years, and she approached Engineers for a Sustainable World to help, said ESW President Peter Ferrell.

The garden's 400 square feet of planting space will be installed by the end of the spring semester near Little Lake and the nearby fence that borders the campus.

The campus chapter of ESW and other volunteers cleared the land and will build 16 planting beds off-campus and take them to the garden plot, where they will be set up to hold flowers, fruits and vegetables.

"Different groups or individuals can work on the beds and grow what they want," Ferrell said. "Our group is going to grow primarily vegetables and flowers, and we will donate any produce we can to local food banks."

Ferrell is working on plans with Merced Gardens and Nursery to help teach students how to garden, and once the garden is established, he hopes students from around the community can come out and learn about gardening there, too.

The first planter installation should cost about $1,000, with money coming from the Associated Students of UC Merced and the UC Merced Sustainability Council.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, email communications@ucmerced.edu.

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