Qimin Huang receives early-career NSF grant to research data-driven mathematical tools that address antibacterial resistance

Qimin Huang, assistant professor of mathematics who also teaches in statistical and data sciences at The College of Wooster, received a National Science Foundation’s Launching Early-Career Academic Pathways in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (LEAPS-MPS) grant for nearly $200,000 towards her work on a data-driven mathematical approach to address antibacterial resistance. Her research will use data-driven mathematical approaches to help identify a combination of bacteriophages, which are viruses that have evolved to infect and kill bacteria, that might be able to provide an alternative to antibiotics.

According to Huang, antimicrobial resistance has been described as one of the biggest threats to human health in the 21st century. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, found in people, animals, plants, and the environment, have rapidly emerged and spread throughout the world. Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that more than 2.8 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, with thousands of them dying as a direct result of the infection. The U.S. government launched a challenge to address the issue, calling on global leaders to work together to accelerate research on new antibiotics and antibiotic alternatives, Huang said.

Her work, which is in response to the challenge, will study a type of therapy called (bacterio)phage therapy that successfully treated infections in the 1920s and ’30s before antibiotics became the go-to solution. Phage therapy “is being widely redeveloped to treat multidrug-resistance infections,” she said. Because there are millions of phages, each with different characteristics, traditional clinical methods to test for efficacy against individual clinical pathogens is impossible. “With math, we can do that,” she said. “Mathematical models can help identify characteristics that would suggest that a phage is a good therapeutic candidate,” Huang explained. The goal is to “develop an optimal combination phage ‘cocktail’ and antibiotic therapy to reduce the health risks at the human-animal-plant ecosystem interface caused by antimicrobial resistance.”

The research is connected to her doctoral work at the University of Miami (Florida), where she discovered an interest in combining her lifelong love of mathematics with biology. She was part of a team using mathematical modeling to provide some theoretical guidance to address the transmission of hospital infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They looked at measures such as increased hand washing or improved admissions screening. “We found that the most important strategy might be the environmental cleaning, because the antibiotic resistant bacteria exist on the doors and windows, the handles, anything you touch,” she said. That was the light-bulb moment for Huang. “I realized it is so cool that I could use my mathematical knowledge or modeling to solve a real-life problem or provide theoretical guidance,” she said.

She also used mathematical modeling in her post-doctoral experience at Case Western Reserve University during the COVID-19 pandemic, which eventually led to her finding “five fantastic female mathematicians” to work on mathematical modeling for phage therapy. Their preliminary published research was noticed by a biologist at San Diego State University who works in a phage laboratory and has agreed to test the results Huang and her collaborators discover. “We will try to use mathematics to think of the most optimal combination and what two phages combined will have the most effective treatment,” she said.

As part of the grant, which runs from September 2023 through August 2025, Huang plans to engage three undergraduate students each academic year and two undergraduate research students each summer. Because she joined the Wooster faculty in spring 2023, she is not familiar with many students yet but will look for students from different backgrounds and interests, with a focus of supporting under-represented students in STEM at Wooster. Students with mathematics or computational background could help with the analysis and simulation of ordinary differential equation models as early as their sophomore year. Students with biological or medical backgrounds could help with data implementation or literature reviews. Their work could lead to ideas for their Independent Study, she added.

“Students will benefit from receiving year-round interdisciplinary training in formulating genuine life science questions into standard mathematical problems. They will be able to travel to a scientific conference for post-graduate planning and community building,” she said.

In addition to the research benefiting students, Huang said the grant also will “advance curricular and program development, which will enhance the institution’s research environment and further establish a sustained, student-focused and interdisciplinary research program in mathematical biology at Wooster.”

Posted in Faculty, News, Sponsored Research on September 21, 2023.