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[Pacific Lutheran Scene]

Leadership and Service

Murdock summer research: Butterfly wings, bacteria and mathematical biology

By Katherine Hedland '88

Dr. Mei Zhu, center, worked with Ted Buzzelli '02 and Emily Yates '02 on ambitious mathematical biology research projects.

When mathematician Mei Zhu first took a course that applied formulas to biology, she was immediately fascinated. Many of the difficult biological terms were new to Zhu, whose first language was Chinese.

"I stayed up late learning all the words," the PLU math professor said. "I was just totally, totally in love with the subject."

Zhu went on to specialize in the fairly new field of mathematical biology, and now she's instilling similar passion in her students, two of whom produced ambitious research projects over the summer. Both students won summer research awards grants from the Division of Natural Sciences M.J. Murdock College Science Research Program.

Zhu had already done research modeling how cells form to create patterns in butterfly wings from a view of how groups of cells interact with one another. Ted Buzzelli '02, became interested in how those cells interact with each other individually. Under Zhu's supervision, he developed a computer model that simulates how these cells interact to form parallel rows in butterfly wings observed in nature.

Emily Yates '02, a biology major and math minor, was interested in tracking how bacteria can cause problems in pregnancy. One-third of all premature labors are caused by infection, and there has been no change in that number in the last 30 years, despite medical advances. Detecting bacteria has been difficult, and it's usually too late to prevent problems once bacteria is found in the amniotic fluid.

So Yates decided to track how those bacteria move, and when it poses a risk. She developed a model that traces how bacteria cross the chorioamnionic membrane and eventually get into the amniotic fluid, causing fetal problems. In her model she studied how bacterial infection causes membrane inflammation and how inflammation triggers the immune system to fight bacteria. She also studied the importance of treating infection with antibiotics.

"We're trying to understand the spatial pattern of how bacteria grow in the membrane and the critical conditions of bacteria causing premature labor," Zhu said.

Zhu was gratified by her students' enthusiastic research, and she hopes to expand it even more to have their papers published.

"I just felt really happy to see them enjoying it so much," said Zhu, who has been on the faculty for three years.

She continues her own research as well, simulating skin cancer cell formation and looking at other cell patterns that one day could answer questions like why a zebra has stripes or a leopard has spots.

Mathematical biology started gaining attention in the '80s.

"Even when I came out of graduate school in 1994 and I would go to job interviews, people did not know what it was," Zhu said.

She likes being part of a wide open field - biology is such a large discipline that there are countless ways to apply mathematical models to biological problems.

"It's good for a school like this, because you can find good problems that undergraduates can work on," she said.

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