CAMBAM seminar speaker: Dr. Somdatta Sinha

After Dr. Sinha's seminar some CAMBAM members went out for a stroll downtown and dinner at Le Commensal. Photo by Thomas Quail.

Last week Thursday Dr. Somdatta Sinha (CCMB) stopped over in Montreal. When I read the announcement of her CAMBAM seminar talk, I first was intrigued by the fact that someone from Hyderabad, India would be visiting – it’s a special city. Checking out Dr Sinha’s publication list and online info, there was a certain feeling that her group simply would not want to limit itself to more than “Biology, very small, very complex and we do Maths.” Both was proven true, in the most positive sense, when Dr Sinha actually arrived.

For her day at CAMBAM, Dr Sinha had quite an itinerary, I got lucky and could speak to her for an hour in the morning. Asking her about the very broad scope of her research, I got the following answer:

Understanding biology is not really difficult. The hardest for a theorist is to actually learn all the important biological terminologies and detailed information. The mathematical tools used are quite similar in different areas. Someone who comes from theoretical physics (i.e. Dr Sinha, LH) will have absolutely no problem to handle the mathematical side of almost any biological problem.

After showing her some of my experimental data and how I think about it conceptually, I had absolutely no doubt that she honestly means this. In a discussion of 45 minutes she was already throwing me ideas what I could test in experiment. How did Dr Sinha switch to Biology?

When I started, Mathematical Biology was new in India. I found Particle Physics and Field Theory challenging, but too abstract for my taste. Biological systems, especially the spatiotemporal patterns and organisation of flower petals, leaves and different life processes had a different appeal for me, so I simply started moving into the field by myself. I just took methods from Physics and Mathematics to understand what is happening. Today there is a lot going on in Mathematical Biology, but those days there was very little.

Now, back to Dr Sinha’s home town and home country. I could ask her a few things over lunch. What about academia?

Over the last decade a new wave of people going to Information Technology (IT) is witnessed. Parents want their kids to do well in life, earn a good living. This has traditionally been in Medicine, and engineering – and now in IT. If you have a degree, you’re hired. Still, the government has understood the importance of academic research for economic and societal growth, and have initiated several new universities and institutions, and more positions have become available. We see many young investigators in Mathematical Biology today, similar to those in many Western countries. I tell people to get positions now. Like in the earlier examples, after this big growth, there will be a decade or two when no one retires.

What about Mathematical Biology?

Mathematical Biology has been around for long in India. However, some of the older centers continued to do purely theoretical analysis of models in ecology, and the like. With the explosion of data in biology today with highly advanced measurement techniques, the community around the world has moved on to work with real data. A new generation of people from Mathematics, Statistics, Physics, and Computer Science now work with big data sets and address very applied questions in the areas of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology. My hope is that these two fields come together, so concepts from Mathematical Biology and the empirical power of Bioinformatics integrate.

Delay induced overshoot in gene expression

Increasing the delay time in (a) model and (b) experiment leads to an increased overshoot amplitude. Courtesy of Dr. Somdatta Sinha. JOURNAL OF MATHEMATICAL BIOLOGY DOI: 10.1007/s00285-010-0375-3

She was in Canada for a conference on an area where she has just started to research, and wanted to learn the biology. After this meeting, where she “heard no theory except for two speakers,” she visited and gave presentations at several Canadian universities. Her last stop was at McGill in Montreal, and while she was traveling forward through the country, for her talk she went back in time to a long-standing, very fascinating project of hers in the CAMBAM seminar talk. Synthetic biology has been and still is a hot topic, to say the least. How about the question of engineering gene regulatory circuits? Dr Sinha and one of her former students have done it. From a negative delayed feedback model, they predicted a delay-length dependent overshoot in the gene expression time course. and exactly this behavior was observed in a bacterial system constructed from this design (Check it out at PLoSOne). Design and model the system, and then build it – that’s a fresh approach, and in this case a quite successful one.

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