In January’s blog post, we feature an interview with Dr. Bradford Peercy, Professor of Mathematics, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
When did you first become interested in mathematics and biology?
I had always enjoyed mathematics growing up (father was a mathematics PhD in analysis) but had a passion for medicine. In my undergraduate education (Trinity University in San Antonio, TX), I combined these two interests in my first math-bio project of quantifying osteocyte lacunae distribution in bone. I realized that mathematics would not directly be studied nor applied in medical school, so with advice from Saber Elaydi, I applied to University of Utah’s applied mathematics program and worked with Jim Keener, who literally wrote the book on Mathematical Physiology.
What are your main research questions and why are they interesting?
My main research questions have often involved excitable dynamics (formation of certain cardiac arrhythmias, function of intracellular calcium waves in neurons, and how networks of beta cells in pancreatic islets communicate), but I’ve always been open and excited about collaboration with experimentalists. When I started at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) the opportunity arose to collaborate with developmental biologist Dr. Michelle Starz-Gaiano. Her research in Drosophila melanogaster egg chambers and the dynamics of cell clustering and migration in development was fascinating to me and sparked the idea of putting a mathematical framework around some of her questions. How are stop-or-go cell fates determined (Berez et al. 2019)? How does the heterogenous geometry of the egg chamber effect the cell fate signaling (Manning et al. 2015)? How do the forces within, from, and on the cluster impact its migration trajectory (Stonko et al. 2015)? More recently Dr. Starz-Gaiano and I have teamed up on jointly funded projects to understand how the egg chamber geometry may impact the distribution of chemical signals driving migration and combine with the underlying forces to explain migration patterns.
Meeting of the minds (January 2022)
Beyond the fact that understanding basic dynamics of life is innately fascinating, to me at least, this research has the potential to impact development, cancer metastasis, and possibly even wound healing. As a relative late comer to modeling questions in development, I am in awe of the extensive and impressive history of work in development and the amazing impact mathematics has already had. I hope we can add a bit more.
What makes you passionate about your work?
I think the passion for my work comes from the sense of discovery within the science by using mathematical tools and frameworks that may not be readily accessible to the biologist. Working at the interdisciplinary interface of math and biology requires an ability to be a translator. I relish the conversion, the transformation, of a biological question into mathematical equations, and then, after analyzing the equations, translating the mathematical results into biophysical meaning.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a career in mathematical biology?
There are so many entry points into what one might consider mathematical biology these days. And there is a spectrum from highly theoretical to extremely applied.
For any undergraduates, I would say participating in some level of research, ideally at the interface of math and biology, is key. Getting a feel integrating the “two” disciplines can and be informative for what you want (and don’t want) going forward. As a graduate student, I would suggest developing your technical skills in mathematics (broadly interpreted to include computation and statistical methods) as deeply as possible for a strong foundation. This is likely to be the strength you bring to your collaborative work.
And if you feel that a strong applied math program with projects collaborating with experimentalists is for you, feel free to apply to UMBC. ;)