By Jess Dankenbring, '17

Fiona Lynch, ’17, was torn between math and chemistry until mathematical modeling entered the equation. Now she’s using math to study a process typically seen in the sciences.

“My research project is part of a larger mathematical and computer science model developed by two professors: Dr. Barry Lawson in computer science and Dr. Lester Caudill in mathematics,” Lynch said. “We are building a differential equations model of physiological responses to an infection.”

Her research started as a model of inflammatory tissue damage. The focus was on the damage in just one organ. But it soon became clear that the model needed to expand.

“The immune response to an infection causes these collateral side effects that cause damage to the tissue the pathogen is located in,” Lynch said. “We wanted to grow this model because the overall simulation is of an actual infection spreading through a hospital. We wanted to incorporate damage with multiple organs, not just one.”

Think about your lungs, for example. Those supply oxygen to the entire body, so an infection that starts in the lungs can cause damage to other organs that are receiving oxygen from them. The infection ends up having a cascading effect throughout the entire body.

“We run these experiments to try to think of a situation that might happen in real life,” Lynch said. “We want to see what happens to a patient who already has pre-existing kidney damage, and then what happens when they get pneumonia.”

She can see the potential to apply her research to current medical care practices. One of the main uses of mathematical models is to evaluate different treatment strategies, especially for something like antibiotic resistance.

“It is very expensive and very hard to run an experiment to figure out what the best treatment option is,” Lynch said. “Mathematical models allow hospitals and healthcare practitioners to evaluate different treatment options and give them inexpensive and fast results. The end goal is to study the effects of different treatment protocols and evaluate which ones end up causing the lowest amount of tissue damage while still clearing the infection.”

Looking back on her research as she prepares to graduate, Lynch says the Integrated Quantitative Science (IQS) was key in giving her the confidence to pursue her project.

“It made a lot of the research a lot less intimidating,” Lynch said. “I am not a biology major, and I haven’t had much experience with biology.

“IQS gave me the ability to say to myself, ‘I have enough of a scientific understanding to read a biology paper and figure out what is going on.’ It gave me a new approach to solving a problem and to think about it from multiple perspectives.”