A C I F I C L U T H E R A N U N I V E R S I
I N T E R 2 0 0 1 - 2 0 0 2
summer research: Butterfly wings, bacteria and mathematical biology
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.
Dr. Mei Zhu, center, worked with Ted Buzzelli '02 and
Emily Yates '02 on ambitious mathematical biology research
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.
'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
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.
felt really happy to see them enjoying it so much," said Zhu,
who has been on the faculty for three years.
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.
biology started gaining attention in the '80s.
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
for a school like this, because you can find good problems that
undergraduates can work on," she said.