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Statistics Professors Shahbaba and Minin Help Develop Framework to Investigate Complex Biological Systems

Statistics Professor Babak Shahbaba is the principal investigator (PI) of a new three-year, $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The project, “Modulus: Data-Driven Mechanistic Modeling of Hierarchical Tissues,” brings together an interdisciplinary team of biologists, statisticians and mathematicians, including co-PIs Statistics Professor Vladimir Minin and Assistant Professor Angela Fleischman from the UCI School of Medicine. The goal is to develop a new mathematical framework that combines statistical and mechanistic models to help scientists discover emergent biological phenomena and to understand the rules that govern them.

“While statistical models and mechanistic models have been used separately by statisticians and applied mathematicians to solve similar biological problems, our goal is to find a way to combine these two types of models to get the best of both worlds,” explains Shahbaba. “We hope that this new framework will allow us to come up with more realistic models of complex biological systems, which in turn could help scientists discover new biological phenomena.”

In addition to his co-PIs, Shahbaba says Chancellor’s Professor of Mathematics John Lowengrub was “extremely instrumental in developing this project,” and three Ph.D. students have also been heavily involved: Michelle Ngo and Luis Martinez Lomeli, advised by Shahbaba and Minin, and Abdon Iniguez, who has been working with Lowengrub. The research was first started about a year ago with seed funding awarded to Lomeli and Iniguez from the UCI Center for Cancer Systems Biology (CaSB) and an NSF Simons Center for Multiscale Cell Fate Research (CMCF) fellowship awarded to Ngo. The team then turned that initial funding into the current proposal, which, as outlined in the abstract, aims to “develop new statistical and mathematical models that describe how cells and molecules within cells self-organize to perform biological functions within an organism.”

The researchers plan to use the framework they develop to investigate hematopoiesis, the biological process responsible for creating and maintaining blood cells. Although this will specifically help scientists gain insights into physiologic hematopoiesis, the methodology will also be transferable to other complex systems in developmental biology, ecology and epidemiology.

“We are very grateful to have received this grant,” says Shahbaba, “which we believe will have far-reaching implications in a wide range of areas in statistics, mathematics and biological sciences.”

— Shani Murray