Research focuses on math models for biology

Professor of biology studies nutrient deficiencies for human vertebral disks

PROFESSOR OF BIOLOGY JUERGEN HAHN SPENDS much of his time using mathematical models to study biological problems.

Working in the realm of systems biology, Professor Juergen Hahn focuses his research on creating mathematical models for complex biological problems.

Some of his research explores how the human body reacts to certain stimuli. If there is an inflammation in your body, there are certain molecules that indicate to your body that it needs to react. However, the body also needs to regulate its reaction; it doesn’t want to overreact. Hahn’s lab computationally develops models to extract data from these situations.

“The underlying denominator is about the approach,” said Hahn. “How do I take this complex problem that I’m dealing with, and how do I break it down into sub-problems that are easier to model and put together?”

There are two main models that Hahn develops: a data-driven model and a first principle-driven model. Data-driven models are used when a myriad of data is available, and the process is highly complex. These models will yield an output with given inputs, but the mechanisms and dynamics of the process remain unknown. First principle-driven models are based upon ideas within biology, physics and chemistry. Based upon equations, this model tries to understand what happens in the process. Hahn’s research group mainly utilizes first principle-driven models, given its advantageous insights.

“I’m trying to understand phenomena,” explained Hahn. “That’s a big issue for me, so we use first principle-driven models quite a bit more.”

One of Hahn’s research interests involves the vertebral column. Vertebral disks lack blood vessels. The disks mainly rely on diffusion and convection forces from the neighboring vertebral bones to supply its nutrients. If someone sustained an injury where the bone became more compact, the diffusion between the disk and bone would decrease, leading to a lack of available nutrients for the disk. With this defiency of nutrients, many of the cells in the disk die. With modeling, Hahn’s research group can find whether a specific exercise or action performed by a patient could provide more nutrients to the disk by changes in fluid.

Hahn’s research also expands away from the biomedical field, with applications in biofuel. By modeling an entire plant, Hahn can determine what changes need to be made to optimally convert it into biofuel.

Hahn’s research is highly dependent on collaborations because the models are dependent on data collected by others. For example, the vertebral disk project is a collaboration with the Albany Medical College.

When Hahn moved to work at RPI several years ago, his entire group from Texas A&M University came along with him. In addition to his research, Hahn conducts a summer-long undergraduate experience for 10 students to learn about research.

For more information about Hahn’s reseach, contact him via e-mail at hahnj@rpi.edu.