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New UC Professor Merges Math and Biology

As a biomathematician, Benjamin Vaughan creates math models that potentially help premature infants, cystic fibrosis patients and more.

Date: 4/12/2011
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Kim Burdett
Benjamin Vaughan has studied pulmonary surfactants in premature infants, spontaneous pattern generation (also called morphogenesis) in fish, and bacterial biofilms found in pipes, scar tissue and teeth. Such research topics may seem to account for a career in the physical sciences but Vaughan studies these things through a different lens—that of an applied mathematician.
“I do math and math/biology,” Vaughan explains. “It’s not the stereotypical math because I don’t just do nebulous equations. I do equations that actually apply to real problems.”

Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences Benjamin Vaughan.
Assistant Professor of Mathematical Sciences Benjamin Vaughan

Vaughan joined the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Mathematical Sciences in the fall as an assistant professor in their biomathematics group. As an applied mathematician, he collaborates with doctors, engineers, biologists and other scientists to come up with mathematical models to extrapolate possible experimental outcomes.

“I don’t build things or do actual experiments, but I work with experimentalists then I create mathematical models that can predict outcomes,” Vaughan says. “When you do an experiment, someone has to operate it and you can only do so many at a time. Say a project allows a student to do six experiments over a summer. But if I can create a mathematical model and have computers run it, I can do thousands of experiments.”

His interest in applied math started as an undergraduate at Wilmington College, where he was a math and computer science major. The Williamsburg, Ohio native liked the idea of using his interest in computers toward a career in math, and went on to study applied mathematics for his PhD at Northwestern University where he studied the growth and signaling of biofilms.

At Northwestern, Vaughan studied quorum sensing—the mechanism through which bacteria signal their presence to other bacteria—by developing numerical methods for moving interfaces and boundary layers of biofilms. Biofilms, found frequently in nature in places like water pipes, on teeth (as dental plaque) or on scar tissue, can lead to severe complications for cystic fibrosis patients.

After getting his PhD in 2007, Vaughan completed two postdoctoral fellowships—one at University of Oxford using multi-scale nonlinear analysis to study morphogenesis of embryonic fish, birds and mammals, and another at the University of Michigan last year where he helped develop mathematical models of fluid delivery in the lungs of premature babies.

“The great thing about applied math is that I have the benefit to switch gears when I want,” he says. “It’s nice that I can take my interest in a lot of different areas and contribute.”

Vaughan, a first-generation college student, is also excited about showing students the potential careers an applied math degree can bring.

“A lot of people like math because of its beauty—it’s amazing that everything fits together in a logical way. But many students ask what kind of jobs they can get with a math degree. Applied math is one of the fastest growing fields right now. Corporations are realizing that hiring mathematicians can do lots of things for them because they help solve problems,” he says.

“Math modeling can help you go into places where you can’t do experiments. That’s why it’s nice—there are so many different things you can do and different places you can end up.”

Read more about the Department of Mathematical Sciences:

Coming to UC was a No-Brainer, Math Student Says
With financial assistance and the promise of two degrees in five years, Langston Joiner is happy to call UC home.

UC Math Professor Honored at International Conference
Magda Peligrad, a leader in the field of probability theory, was recently honored at a conference in Paris.

Cryptography: Using Math to Keep Computers Secure
Math PhD student Daniel Cabarcas studies polynomials to help fight the algebraic attacks that threaten computer security.

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