People often ask why we spend so much money to study some fish somewhere. One reason is because a lot of basic systems are shared among organisms. If you can study a simpler one, you can get very applicable work out of it.

Christina Hamlet

At the intersection of mathematics and lampreys — those jawless fish wriggling their way through water — Professor Christina Hamlet sees a world of potential.

In her research involving mathematical modeling of biological systems, Hamlet studies organism-environment interactions.

"I am interested in how different systems coordinate across multiple scales to produce basic behaviors, such as feeding or locomotion," she says. "I am also interested in the physical constraints on these systems that influence function on a systems level."

By mathematically modeling normal lamprey movement, the equation can be manipulated to indicate how they would adapt their movement if physically compromised — without actually injuring the lamprey.

"Lampreys move back and forth like eels, and both are vertebrates and share basic structures with other vertebrates, including humans," Hamlet says. "We have equations to describe how their bodies work to interact with the water and maneuver around objects. We can see what happens if we numerically injure the lamprey spine, and based on that injury, how it affects the way it swims."

Hamlet said her research could be applied to human spinal cord injury.

"It could be applied in many ways — wound healing, exploring biological parameters," she says. "If we get a model to do predictive experiments, we can push them out of a biological range. People often ask why we spend so much money to study some fish somewhere. One reason is because a lot of basic systems are shared among organisms. If you can study a simpler one, you can get very applicable work out of it."

Hamlet next plans to expand her research to sea anemones.

"I want to understand how something that looks like a big blob of jelly and just sits there is also predatory and stinging and preying on things," she says. "How do they coordinate their muscles and tentacles? That's an interesting problem that may have applications for filtration systems. Most things trolling the ocean for food are good models for filtration or vehicles."

Hamlet engages students at many stages of her research, which is easily adaptable for levels from undergraduate to postgraduate, and to students' particular interests.

"The great thing about the projects I work on is they're modular," she says. "We have all these biological systems that coordinate and equations that describe each one of those. Some students just want to work with computations, some just equations, and some just want to do experiments. So a student can work on something that is isolated and less complicated, but it's still meaningful research."

Posted Oct. 7, 2016

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