Trinity Mathematician Awarded Grant from National Institutes of Health

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Susie P. Gonzalez
Mar. 2, 2011

Trinity Mathematician Awarded Grant from National Institutes of Health

Professor Peter Olofsson uses math models to explore probabilities of human disease


SAN ANTONIO - Mathematicians such as Trinity University's Peter Olofsson draw upon their penchant for patterns to predict human illnesses resulting from improper cell division or from the unfortunate invasion of bacteria into a bowl of chili.

Mathematics professor Peter Olofsson
Peter Olofsson

Olofsson recently received a three-year grant of more than $200,000 from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study a range of biological and biomedical research projects that involve mathematical models for cellular population dynamics. It is his first grant from the NIH, and it will provide support for research projects with health interests by Trinity undergraduates, conference travel, and scholarly publication costs, among other expenses.

An active researcher in the field of applied probability, Olofsson focuses on mathematics to solve problems in biology. One area of interest to him is food science and microbiology, specifically the "lag time" involved with bacteria and food.

 "When bacteria land in a bowl of chili, it doesn't reproduce right away," Olofsson said, "That's the lag time." He and students examine that lag time to predict when the bacteria might taint the food, and possibly cause human illness.

Another project deals with dynamics of the ends of chromosomes known as "telomeres," which are known to shorten during DNA replication. This shortening is counteracted by the enzyme telomerase. Because cells that lack sufficient amounts of telomerase will eventually stop dividing, telomere dynamics are of interest to cancer researchers. Olofsson has established mathematical models to investigate how telomere dynamics relate to cell population dynamics. Working with a collaborator at Baylor College of Medicine, Olofsson has tested his model predictions on yeast populations. Yeast grows easily in a laboratory and has many genetic similarities to humans, making it an ideal model organism to study.

Prions, proteins that cause infections such as "mad cow" disease, also are of interest to Olofsson.  As infected cells divide, the disease is distributed across cell populations that Olofsson and collaborators at Brown University describe by mathematical models that would explain how prions grow and are spread. "This has an obvious health relevance," he said.  

Olofsson is the author of two books, a general audience book, Probabilities: The Little Numbers that Rule Our Lives," Wiley, 2006, and an undergraduate textbook, Probabilities, Statistics, and Stochastic Processes, Wiley, 2005