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Students connect hearing in humans to movement in fish

August 21, 2013

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    Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences Liz Stanhope

During the summer, Lewis & Clark students continue to work hard in their fields of study. By collaborating with faculty on research projects, students are able to engage their curiosity, expand their learning, and prepare for life after college, all while making meaningful contributions to scholarship.

Daniel Blasher B.A. ’13, Sreyhiek Seng ’16, and Abraham De Leon, a student at Rosemary Anderson High School, worked with Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences Liz Stanhope to construct a computational model of sensory hair cells in the inner ear to better understand hearing in humans and motion detection in fish.  In the following Q&A, the team members reflect on their experience.

What are you researching? What question or problem are you trying to answer/solve with your research?

We’re in the first year of a longterm research project aimed at constructing a computational model of sensory hair cells. Our task this summer is establishing the initial framework by selecting a model organism, what specific structure we want the parameters for, and what math models exist for us to learn from and replicate before innovating. So far we’ve examined literature on hair cells of the inner ear in humans, and hair cell clusters on the lateral line of zebrafish. Our main question is:  Can methods in differential geometry add insight to the modeling of sensory hair bundles?

Does your research have any potential applications in the real world, or will it influence other work in your field?

We hope to contribute to modeling literature and provide a new and improved modeling method applicable to biological structures. Studying the micromechanics in various organisms requires the involvement of physics, computer science, and math models to sustain progress. Our research could potentially change how sensory transduction is understood by providing a math model that simulates real world scenarios of hearing in humans and motion detection in fish.

What first sparked your interest in this research area?

Blasher: Most fields of science have always fascinated me, particularly neuroscience through any disciplinary approach. Math, however, has been an academic weakness that I finally have a reason to invest in through this project. When I read the project description, I knew I’d found the perfect opportunity to challenge myself scientifically and give math another shot. Also, as a musician I was naturally drawn to the auditory aspect of the project.

Seng: I hope to major in computer science and was particularly interested in the biological application of computer programing. This project is a perfect opportunity to explore how powerful and accurate computer science can be in the medical sciences.

De Leon: What interested me in this project was being able to study something I use on a daily basis. I like to use headphones for listening to music and videos. Being able to study something that has a big part in how I hear and how hairs cells work interested me.

How has working closely with faculty influenced your education?

Blasher: I’ve gained more confidence in my math abilities by working with Liz as someone with a little background in a lot of the material. For instance, some days she’ll be showing me differential equations, other days we’ll be dissecting physics equations and relationships neither of us has seen before. Even though it’s been exhausting and frustrating to step into disciplines I’m very unfamiliar with, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to rekindle my relationship with mathematics and experience how vital it is to the sciences I adore.

Seng: Being able to work closely on a team with Liz has allowed me the opportunity to not only learn as a student, but to also approach her as a colleague. As someone new to research, I found the combination of working independently but having Liz as a mentor to be extremely effective. Working closely allows me to learn as well as contribute my knowledge on specific topics.

How do you hope your experiences this summer will impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

Blasher: This experience will aid me in my math and literature tutoring job. More importantly, it has broadened my horizons for what I can accomplish academically and has allowed me to reconsider my graduate school interests.

Seng: This summer of research has introduced me to a range of uses for the application of computer science. My interest in the field has deepened and I hope to gain more insight into how computer science can be a powerful tool for modeling biological processes. Being comfortable in the ability to learn new programming languages is essential in computer science and I hope that this project will build confidence in my ability to do so.

About the program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to participate in graduate-level research with an emphasis on strengthening their communication skills by requiring them to present their findings. This summer, 40 students are pursuing topics that range from artificial intelligence and motivating behavior to holographic tweezers and zebra fish. Working closely with peers and faculty members, students undertake research questions and present their work in two public venues.

“We’re not asking you, ‘What’s the answer?’ We’re saying, ‘What’s the question?’” said Michael Broide, director of the Rogers program and chair of the physics department. “I think what sets our program apart is that regardless of what project you are on, we’re all going to come together as a group to present what we’re doing in as accessible a way as possible. In science, it’s such an important skill to be able to explain cogently what you’re doing.”

Students make their final research presentation at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 18, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Department of Mathematical Sciences Rogers Summer Research Projects

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.