Seed grant to establish Southeast Center for Mathematics and Biology

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Credit: Elena Dimitrova

CLEMSON – In a collaboration with faculty from six other universities, Clemson University mathematician Elena Dimitrova has been awarded a $578,235 seed grant to participate in establishing the Southeastern Center for Mathematics and Biology.

The center's work will connect mathematical theory with biological data, with the core objective to educate a new generation of scientists at the math-biology interface. It will be based at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"The center's collaborators intend to harness the untapped potential that exists in the Southeast for innovation in mathematical biology. It will pair mathematicians and biologists who most likely wouldn't work together otherwise; and in turn, they will train graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to do interdisciplinary research," Dimitrova said.

The National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation have awarded a total of $10 million, to be disbursed over the course of five years to the center, pairing one mathematician from each institution with a biologist from Georgia Tech.

Rather than taking existing tools in mathematics and applying them to biological questions, or vice versa, the team plans to drive discovery in both fields concurrently.

"It will be mathematics driven by the data, which is produced in collaboration with biologists in a lab, that is then integrated into the research and modeling and all the mathematical innovations we get from there," Dimitrova said. "It will be biology and mathematics developing hand in hand."

The team plans to convene once a year at Georgia Tech for a symposium. Each post-doctoral fellow will spend his or her first summer learning from a biologist at Georgia Tech.

Although she is the sole representative of the grant for Clemson, Dimitrova plans to use part of the funds from her seed grant to start a seminar for graduate students and faculty interested in learning more about the interdisciplinary study of mathematics and biology. She also hopes to start an outreach program for the community that brings middle school students to Clemson for a lesson in the fields.

The collaboration provides an opportunity for Dimitrova to extend the applications of her research, which is in systems biology, reverse-engineering methods and computational algebraic geometry.

"In my collaboration with Professor Melissa Kemp from Georgia Tech, we hope to improve the understanding of how stem cells differentiate. We will study how naïve stem cells differentiate into tissues as a test for the generalizable properties of cellular coordination," Dimitrova said.

Dimitrova says that now is more important than ever for mathematicians and scientists to work together in tackling the amount of information stemming from research.

"Combinatorics, algebra, topology – these are all areas that typically aren't seen as applicable to biology. In fact they're beginning to show their tremendous potential in the field, especially in the presence of so much data being generated every day. Biologists absolutely need mathematicians and statisticians to help use the data for discovery and to drive even more data generation."

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