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Boise State Math Professor Earns Grant to Unlock Mysteries of the Human Body

Portrait of Grady Wright

Grady Wright

Boise State mathematics professor Grady Wright is interested in developing numerical methods and software to better understand mysteries within the human body – for instance, how the shape of certain cells in our body change in response to signals in the fluids that surround the cells, a hard-to-study relationship known as a bulk surface biomechanical process.

Now Wright and co-principal investigator Varun Shankar, with the University of Utah, have been awarded a three-year, $245,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build scalable, high-order mesh-free algorithms and software that can be applied to solving these bulk surface biomechanics problems.

“There is continual absorption and desorption taking place, as chemicals outside the cell wall interact with the cell wall,” Wright explained. “Those chemicals have certain functions, perhaps to change the structure of a cell’s wall so that it deforms in some ways. However, we can’t study this relationship ‘in vivo’ because as soon as you cut into someone, that cycle is disrupted. So we build complex mathematical models and the novel numerical methods to solve them to try and study this relationship.”

The grant, which is distributed by NSF’s Algorithmic Foundations (AF) program, also will help bolster the research portfolio of the new Computing doctoral program at Boise State, and will support one graduate student in this program for three years. The AF program is supported by NSF’s Division of Computing and Communication Foundations (CCF) and is housed under the Directorate of Computer Information Science and Engineering (CISE).

Inside and outside of a cell, as made by a computer

A figure from Wright’s simulation of a diffusion process in a cell.

Wright explained that the algorithms he and his graduate student will be working on will simulate two specific biomechanical processes within the human body – lipid membrane morphology and the physiology of platelets in the process of clotting after an injury occurs. Through a chemical process that is signaled through the plasma, these platelets, which are normally rigid structures, become pliable and able to form clots.

“We don’t understand a lot of the process of clotting ‘in vivo’ – especially the coagulation and aggregation stages,” Wright said. “It’s important important to know why some people are more susceptible than others to forming abnormal clots in their body, which can break off and cause a stroke or pulmonary embolism, for example.”

Wright’s research has broader impacts, including within the fields of biology, material science, even the pharmaceutical industry. For instance, if drug companies want to manufacture drugs that have an effect on cell walls, or change the property of a cell in some ways, they must build a drug that can bind to the receptor on a cell wall, thereby changing the property of the cell in some way – this is another example of a bulk surface biomechanical process.

“Our grant will develop the software and algorithms to hopefully solve some of these complicated models to provide insights to specialists in these fields,” Wright said.