Body of Numbers

Inaugural Conference on Quantitative Approaches in Biology brings together interdisciplinary scholars to explore the rules of life

By Roger AndersonNovember 16, 2018

“Mathematics is poised to change the way we study biology,” said Richard Carthew, director of Northwestern’s new NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology. He delivered opening remarks November 16 at the inaugural Conference on Quantitative Approaches in Biology in Evanston.

Just six months after Northwestern received one of four highly competitive $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research that uses mathematics to describe and analyze the development of living organisms, the University hosted more than 200 scholars for a two-day summit. The conference featured a guest speaker series, a workshop on collaboration in team science, a roundtable discussion, networking opportunities, a poster session, and an undergraduate research competition.

“This inaugural conference is both an opportunity to showcase the terrific work in this area being done at Northwestern, and to educate our trainees and establish new relationships with faculty leaders in this emergent interdisciplinary field from around the country,” said Kelly Mayo, associate dean for research at the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences. “The conference has a strong emphasis on team science as well as engagement of undergraduate students in quantitative biology research, reflecting important values of the newly established NSF-Simons Center.”

Attendees at the event represented more than a dozen universities, including Northwestern, Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. On Friday, Boris Shraiman from the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California Santa Barbara, delivered a keynote on his experiences as a physicist in biology. A statistical physicist by training, Shraiman has worked on biological problems for the past two decades.

'Beyond the Textbook'

“In biology, we see physical processes that push us beyond the textbook, and so we ask the question: can this interdisciplinary way of thinking push us to ask questions that we would not have asked otherwise?” asked Shraiman, who focused the majority of his lecture on morphogenesis, the biological process that causes an organism to develop its shape.

In discussing the shape of things from lettuce to fruit flies, Shraiman discussed the many ways in which biology can inspire physics, as well.

“The flow of ideas goes in both directions,” he said, looking back 100 years to the works of D’Arcy Thompson, who posited that morphology was something physical scientists could explain.

“In reality it is very much a biology problem,” Shraiman said. “How do genes encode geometry? This question requires a bridge between mathematics and biology.”

The first day of the Conference on Quantitative Approaches in Biology also included a workshop on interdisciplinary team science — led by Bennett Goldberg, Denise Dran, and Fruma Yehiely — as well as a team science panel discussion moderated by Nicole Moore, director of Research Development. Panelists included Carthew, Neda Bagheri, chemical and biological engineering, postdoctoral fellow Thomas Stoeger, and doctoral student Rachel Bakker.

"Team science offers the opportunity for cross-fertilization across disciplines and integration of approaches (i.e. convergence). Diversity within these teams increases the potential for innovation and productivity," said Moore. "Teams are able to view challenges through different lenses, offering many perspectives, a critical component when addressing complex societal problem.”

'Collaborative, Interdisciplinary'

Day two of the conference began with a presentation by Northwestern biostatistician Rosemary Braun, preventive medicine, who discussed circadian rhythms and a novel machine-learning algorithm that can infer physiological time based on molecular biomarkers in blood. Braun was one of six scholars and nearly 30 postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty members who presented to a capacity crowd on Saturday.

“We're living in an exciting time for life sciences research as we have technologies that enable us to gather vast quantities of highly detailed data at an enormous rate,” said Braun, a member of the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology, and Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. “Making sense of this data is too monumental a task for any one person — or any one discipline. It's going to take life scientists, mathematicians, and computer scientists coming together to address our most interesting and pressing questions.” 

Jointly funded by the NSF and the Simons Foundation, the NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology was created to enable innovative collaborative research at the intersection of mathematics and molecular, cellular, and organismal biology, and to establish new connections and promote interdisciplinary education.

“This funding provides us with a tremendous opportunity to pull together a number of talented researchers into one cohesive group,” said William Kath, the center’s co-director. “This will create a whole new set of interactions that will accelerate research tremendously.”

Since its official launch in July, center-affiliated faculty have published on topics ranging from why some human genes are more popular with researchers than others, as well as a blood test that can reveal the body’s precise internal clock. The center has also supported two research projects with pilot funding to study mechanisms in regeneration and brain development.

Carthew credits support from Northwestern Research as integral to the research center’s success.

“The thought is that mathematics can revolutionize the study of biology and simulate the kind of impact that mathematics has had on physics research,” said Carthew, a professor of molecular biosciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. “Future accomplishments in this interdisciplinary field are dependent on our ability to bring great minds from both fields into the same room. This conference was a great first step in that endeavor.”

The Conference on Quantitative Approaches in Biology was supported by a grant from the Simons Foundation/SFARI (597491-RWC) and the National Science Foundation (1764421). Other sponsors included Northwestern’s Department of Molecular Biosciences, Zeiss, Molecular Devices, and Nikon.