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NS&M Colloquium: Using Mathematics to Fight Cancer

On Nov. 8, the President of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), Ami Radunskaya spoke at St. Mary’s College of Maryland about her work modeling cancerous tumor growth. Radunskaya has been a professor of mathematics at Pomona College since 1994, after completing her PhD in mathematics at Stanford University.

She is currently serving her two-year term as president of AWM, a non-profit organization that was founded in 1971. The organization’s purpose is to “encourage women and girls to study and to have active careers in mathematical sciences, and to promote equal opportunity and the equal treatment of women and girls in the mathematical sciences.” AWM currently has over 5000 members.

Radunskaya became the co-director of The Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) Program in 2011. The goal of the EDGE Program is to “increase the number of women and minority students who successfully complete graduate programs in mathematical sciences.”

Radunskaya’s work in modeling tumors began at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she met with doctors once a month in a group called Mathematics of Medicine (MOM). Many of the doctors said they went to medical school because they couldn’t do the math, but with Radunskaya’s help, they were soon building their own mathematical models.

One of the problems with cancer research is that cancer cells start with one cell, which divides into two. Two cells divide into four, which results in exponential growth of cells. However, this model of growth is not regularly seen in tumor growth, because it would take 40 days to detect a 7 mm tumor, and after 40 more days, the tumor would be the size of a beach ball. A more accurate model would be a graph that levels off or behaves in a different way. This is where mathematics can help develop cancer research to more accurately represent tumor growth.  

Radunskaya and others in this exciting field use math equations to model growth, as well as determine how chemotherapy kills different cells at different rates.

Mathematics also provides information on how cancer vaccine trials should be run. Mathematicians are able to model how much of a vaccine should be given when it should be given, where it should be given and how the patient will respond. Based on this information, vaccines can be manipulated to extend survival rates.

Radunskaya emphasized that cancer mathematical modeling is a very large field that is constantly evolving. She encourages anyone interested to get involved. When she started her work it took her a while to learn the biology involved in math modeling for tumors, but she was able to ask her questions to the doctors she was meeting with. Radunskaya told the audience, “you can get started without knowing everything.”

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