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Mathematics-Bioscience Partnership to Explore Cellular Transport

Duke MEMS’s Christine Payne brings bioscience expertise to new $10 million center seeking to better understand the relationship between mathematics and biology

Christine Payne, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke University, is part of the newly announced NSF-Simons Southeast Center for Mathematics and Biology (SCMB). Headquartered at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the center pairs mathematicians and bioscientists to address open questions in biology using new mathematics.

The SCMB comprises 14 researchers, including collaborators throughout the Southeastern United States. Tulane University, University of Florida, University of South Florida, Clemson University and Oak Ridge National Laboratory are each contributing a mathematician.

Payne’s portion of the center is to be paired with Scott McKinley, associate professor of mathematics at Tulane University. The duo’s goal will be to explore the biophysics of cellular transport, specifically endocytosis of nutrients, viruses, toxins and nanoparticles. While Payne’s laboratory will use live cell imaging and single-particle tracking to follow the movement of bioparticles along the cytoskeleton, McKinley’s group will use a Bayesian approach to relate the observed cellular transport to underlying mathematical models.

“Our experiments can’t track particles indefinitely,” said Payne. “Mathematics can help us answer the question of just how much can we infer based on the physical limits of experiments.”

“Our experiments can’t track particles indefinitely. Mathematics can help us answer the question of just how much can we infer based on the physical limits of experiments.”

Payne says that the strength of the new center comes in large part from the ability of Principal Investigator Christine Heitsch, professor in Georgia Tech's School of Mathematics, to create useful teams of mathematicians and bioscientists.

“The mathematicians have tools and interests that can help the bioscientists, though they may never have known it otherwise,” said Payne. “And it’s a two-way collaboration because the data provided by the bioscientists could lead to new mathematics as well.”

The SCMB is one of four centers funded with a total of $40 million from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation. The center will support one Duke graduate student for five years as they work on a collaborative project with the McKinley group, including multiple visits and workshops with the other math-bioscience partners.

“Math can potentially change the way we do our experiments,” said Hang Lu, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering who co-leads of the center. “Biological systems can look overwhelmingly complex, and that just means we haven’t found the right way of looking at them yet.”