March 17, 2008
Pumping new life into math
By Carol Clark
If you think math is boring, you haven’t met Alessandro Veneziani. “I love to prove abstract theorems,” he says, in the buoyant accent of his native Italy. “And I love even more when my results are used to help people.”
The associate professor of mathematics and computer science came to Atlanta last fall from the Politecnico di Milano, bringing his knowledge and passion for solving human blood flow problems to Emory.
He sketches a heart amid the equations on his office blackboard, to explain how his research helped improve the odds for babies with a defect known as left-ventricle hypoplasia. Through computer simulation, surgeons can now predict the optimal size and placement of the artificial aorta needed to keep a newborn alive while awaiting a heart transplant.
“That makes me so happy,” Veneziani says, beaming. “Even mathematics has a heart.”
Engineers from Ducati, the high-performance motorcycle maker with wealthy patrons like Tom Cruise, asked Veneziani to apply this same expertise to simulate engine air-flow systems. He invited one of his top graduate students to tackle the task. “He was so happy when he found out it was for Ducati that he started crying,” Veneziani says.
Veneziani hopes such examples will inspire his Emory undergraduate students. “Math is like music,” he says. “It’s difficult to play an instrument at a high level, you have to study and practice a lot. But if you learn linear algebra today, then maybe someday you can help a baby survive — or Tom Cruise buy a better motorcycle.”
The science of cardiovascular mathematics dates at least to the 1700s, when the pioneering Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler developed a model for fluid dynamics while studying blood flow in arteries.
“The love between math and medicine goes back a long time,” Veneziani says. But it was not until the past decade or so, he adds, that advances in computing and diagnostic imaging put fluid dynamics at the cutting edge of medicine.
Emory offers Veneziani an opportunity to expand his cardiovascular math research, drawing from the resources of the School of Medicine and a math department already involved in biomedicine. “My dream is that numerical simulation will become part of the daily routine of medical doctors,” he says.
He is currently focused on complex equations involving brain aneurysms — tears in blood vessels that create balloon-like bulges — to predict their likelihood of rupture. The resulting data could help doctors determine whether to operate on a patient, or forego the risky brain surgery and simply monitor the aneurysm.
“People think I’m crazy when I tell them that equations are beautiful, but I see the underlying structure, and the potential benefits,” Veneziani says. “The harder the problem, the more exciting it is for me to work on it.”