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September 8, 2008
Making math count in biology
By Carol Clark
During her first year of graduate school, Beth Kochin was already developing mathematical models to help solve key problems surrounding malaria infections. She begins her second year with a tremendous boost for her work: As a 20082009 winner of the prestigious Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellowship for young scientists, Kochin received a $250,000 grant.
“I hope to be part of a growing number of researchers looking to make immunology into a quantitative science,” says Kochin, who is in Emory’s Population Biology, Ecology and Evolution program. “By using mathematics, theoreticians working in concert with experimentalists have a real opportunity to make dramatic strides in our understanding of infectious disease, which can lead to new treatment strategies and novel vaccines.”
“Beth has a brilliant quantitative background, which is relatively rare in biology,” says Rustom Antia, professor of biology, who is Kochin’s adviser. “She’s very good at what she does.”
A native of Seattle, Kochin was a senior in high school when she began spending her summers doing research for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. She assisted with projects such as developing a statistical model for the amount of fish discarded by commercial fishing fleets.
“When officials set catch limits, it’s important that they know how many fish are getting thrown out, since those fish usually don’t survive,” Kochin explains.
At Yale, where she majored in biology and applied math, Kochin became interested in epidemiology and infectious diseases. “Mathematical models for how a disease spreads in a population — from SARS to malaria — are fairly well developed and work beautifully,” Kochin says. “By changing just a few parameters, you can predict the course of an epidemic in a population.”
The dynamics of how an infection spreads within a single host, however, are not as well understood. As a graduate student, Kochin decided she wanted to pursue this emerging area of theoretical immunology.
Emory became her top school choice after she interviewed with Antia. “I started playing around with equations on the plane going home. If I could get that excited from just a short meeting, I knew it was a sign of great things to come,” she recalls. “Dr. Antia puts a big emphasis on starting with simple, intuitive models. If you build in unnecessary complexity, you can wind up with a ‘black box’ — a result that you don’t understand.”
Kochin led a project in Antia’s group to create a statistical model for how malaria functions within a host during the initial, acute phase of infection. The researchers worked with data from mice infected with two different strains of malaria. Soon after a host is infected, the number of malaria parasites peaks within the body, and then the density goes down. Do the parasites run out of redblood cells to target? Or is the infection primarily controlled by the innate immune system?
“They seem like simple questions, but they haven’t been fully answered yet,” says Kochin. The mathematical models that she and her colleagues are developing can be used to test hypotheses surrounding these questions and yield more pieces to the complex puzzle of how malaria operates within a host.
Kochin is also doing handson work in the lab of Rafi Ahmed, director of the Emory Vaccine Center, to gain deeper understanding of the mechanics of wet immunology.
“Emory provides a unique opportunity for me to become an excellent quantitative biologist who is trained to work with both experimentalists and theoreticians,” Kochin says. “I want to keep my theoretical research grounded in reality and learn to communicate in ways that both sides understand.”
