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Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: Using Math to Better Understand Cancer Cells

Colorectal cancer cells
Colorectal cancer cells

Mathematics and biology sound like pretty distant relatives, but for Wanda Strychalski, an assistant professor of mathematics at Case Western Reserve University, they’re a perfect match.

“I really see mathematical biology - or mathematics, as another tool or assay for lab scientists to use to try and understand really complicated data," Strychalski said.

Strychalski has been developing mathematical simulations to learn how cells, especially cancer cells, migrate around your body by flexing their stiff internal structure, called a cytoskeleton, which pushes and pulls the cell’s membrane, the barrier between the cell and the outside world.

“So as it’s migrating, the cytoskeleton is rearranging and then causing this motion to occur,” Strychalski said.  “We start out with a minimal model based on the results from experiments, and then see if indeed, is that how it works, and usually, that's not true. So usually the one thing with the model is that we can say, well, this doesn’t happen with these minimal components so let's add in this. And when you're building a model, you can make choices on how you want to do things as long as you're able to then solve or simulate the resulting equations.”

Strychalski’s mathematical models help biologists test things they’d never be able to measure in the lab, and with math, they’re able to take on critical questions about how cancer cells migrate and spread disease around your body.  

Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.