National researchers and UNM students are teaming up to conduct interdisciplinary experiments that could advance the field of biology and improve your life.

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, gave UNM, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories a $14.5 million grant for interdisciplinary research, said Bridget Wilson, co-director of the Center for Systems Biology.

Wilson said that thanks to the grant, more than 50 biologists, mathematicians and engineers will participate in projects at the center focusing on a wide variety of projects, including creating microscopic robots, over the next five years.

“If you break it down to its parts, it has scientific goals, recruiting goals, training goals and outreach goals,” she said. “Our job is to try to accomplish all those things in five years and to also interact with the other national systems-biology centers.”

The center is recruiting UNM students to be part of the research team.
“The students will come from both the Health Sciences campus and the main campus,” Wilson said. “So, one of my goals in the fall is to talk to graduate students … We’re interested in recruiting students who want to think about mathematical modeling of biological processes.”

Jeremy Edwards is a member of the center’s biology team and an associate professor of molecular genetics and microbiology. Edwards said the center uses computer models to simulate biological phenomena that can’t be seen with a microscope. He said this is an interdisciplinary approach to a complex problem.

“That’s what systems biology is about, is bringing people to do these two things together,” he said. “We generally have a hypothesis they can’t test, so we can test the feasibility of these things by using modeling and mathematical formulations. So together, we can try to move forward.”

In a press release, Center for Systems Biology Director Janet Oliver said the center’s diverse team will bring together many disciplines to solve complex problems related to health.

“Together, we expect to develop the new tools needed to understand the dynamic biochemical and spatial events that control the behavior of immune and cancer cells,” she said.

Wilson said the center will also study allergic reactions.

“We focus on fundamental receptor biology,” she said. “And one of our favorite model systems is in fact a mast cell, which is responsible for allergic reactions in people.”

Wilson said that by focusing on the fundamental inner workings of a cell, the center’s researchers will gain knowledge that applies across medical fields.
In addition, researchers will try to develop new technology for future experiments, Wilson said.

“One contribution of the Sandia National Laboratory group to the center will be to design and build very small devices that are called ‘microfluidic devices,’”
she said. “When used in combination with a high-resolution microscope, they will allow us to measure cellular events in a really fast and accurate way.”

Wilson said Albuquerque’s location in the heart of New Mexico near the two laboratories, along with the presence of the state’s largest university, will be beneficial to the center.

“I think it’s an honor and a privilege to conduct research of this quality here in Albuquerque,” she said.