Mathematics professor Wes Cain will be the first to tell you he isn’t a biologist, which makes his research specialty — mathematical cardiology — a unique choice.

Mathematical cardiology takes data collected from heart patients and uses mathematical formulas to develop computer simulations that model the behavior of cardiac tissue. The goal is to gain a better understanding of the functions of the heart — from electrical activity, to pumping blood, to rhythm — without conducting long-term invasive experiments on humans or animals.

Cain’s primary interest is the heart’s electrical activity. Researchers can extract information from a patient’s EKG to get an aggregate sense of what the electrical profile is in the heart. “By understanding the electrical waves that are swimming around in the tissue, which are responsible for the coordinated contraction of the heart muscle, we hope that by modeling and simulating those waves, that we can understand how arrhythmias start,” Cain says. The data can then be used to improve electrical pacemakers that are implanted in patients. 

Cain’s interest in the subject began in his first semester of graduate school when he completed a project for a course on ordinary differential equations. There were several options and he selected one that involved mathematically simulating alternans, or alternating long and short heartbeats – a warning sign for arrhythmias. After a semester of independent study continuing the research, Cain decided to pursue the subject for his doctoral dissertation topic.

There was just one problem — Cain had never taken a biology course. To build his own understanding in the areas of the research that weren’t familiar to him, he built a team of consultants that included biomedical engineers, physicists, and cardiologists to advise him. “Cardiologists can collect data and provide observations about what they see in patients, while biomedical engineers are grounded in physiology, science, and mathematics and they would be involved in the design of a medical device,” Cain says.

But with each set of skills came a unique technical language and Cain spent a great deal of time trying to bridge the “language gaps” among his team members. It was a lot of work for a graduate student to serve as translator for, and build consensus among, several different types of scientists. “The more I did it, the more I became a true believer in that sort of dialogue,” he says. “The best directions in science are when different fields meet.” 

He continues to use a collaborative team-based approach in his research and sees other researchers in science and math fields doing the same.

Cain is in the midst of planning a new project, to mathematically reproduce an experiment conducted by a multidisciplinary team that used an electric field rather than an electrode to regulate abnormal heart electrical activity. This time, his team will include a researcher in China, and several University of Richmond undergraduate students. Cain’s students will model control of a specific type of arrhythmia and perform mathematical analysis based on their coursework in linear algebra and multivariate calculus. He hopes their work will lead eventually to a new medical device that would use less energy and reduce the pain a patient feels from a pacemaker.