mathematical models: an #integral part of biomedical engineering

This week, I am SO honored to feature Cátia (aka @apulgarita), a biomedical engineer from Portugal who has done mathematical modeling of malaria transmission, tissue-engineered cartilage growth, and stem cell growth under manufacturing for economics modeling. While she has years of robust and diverse experiences with mathematical modeling under her belt, (and is currently finishing her PhD research at MIT, nbd), she did not always have an easy time on her journey. Her story hits really close to home for me, as she had also failed mathematics exams, but fought through her struggles and ended up discovering what she excels at, and what her passion is. Here's her inspiring story :)...

I am a Portuguese Biomedical Engineer and I am on the final year of my PhD in Bioengineering at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, with a one year stay at the Institute for Data, Systems and Society at MIT that is now coming to an end. My current research is focused on how mathematical models of stem cell growth and differentiation can be interconnected to discrete event simulations to determine costs of manufacturing stem cells for clinical application, combined with Markov models of disease to determine cost effectiveness of these new stem cell therapies. I currently do these simulations on Python and my goal is to create an open source simulation tool and make it available to the research and industrial community!

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About my experience with maths:

I used to like maths in middle and high school and, after a turbulent time in high school trying to decide what to do for college, I ended up choosing to apply for Biomedical Engineering. I had always liked healthcare challenges and I knew I wouldn’t have the grit to become a medical doctor, and I studied really hard for my Maths exam. Despite having tremendously good grades in all my other admission exams, I had a 14.5 on Maths (out of 20) and, since Biomedical Engineering had a very high entry score dependent on the Maths exam, I almost thought I wouldn’t make it and I would not be suited for the degree. I ended up making the cut and was admitted :)

During college, I had my first failed exam ever for Calculus I. Integrals were not exactly my cup of tea back then. I studied really hard and I ended up passing it and started liking integrals. My next setback would be a zero score on a test on Complex Analysis and Differential Equations. I am really stubborn and a fighter and, after I started liking integrals, I liked differential equations, so I knew I could rebound and I ended up getting an almost perfect score in the final exam and an almost perfect final grade. However, never had I ever thought back then that I would end up doing all my research career up until now in differential equations applications for the Biomedical field.

I only started considering mathematical models of disease on the first year of my masters. When the time came to choose between a lab career and doing a programming thesis, I went for lab because I had experience in the field. It was not the wrong decision, but I suffered so much in my master’s thesis research. I now feel more at peace with this story, but I had my lab supervisors tell me that I was really smart but not good in lab work and would not recommend me for a lab position after I graduated. However, I started looking for jobs and saw a grant on mathematical modeling of malaria transmission and immunity and they were happy to recommend me for that. I won the grant and learned so so much after I graduated, both in differential equations modeling, parameter estimation, Bayesian inference and statistics. I was then sure of the usefulness of these models and how unexplored they are still and that I had found my niche. However, my true research passion was regenerative medicine, so I pursued a position on tissue engineered cartilage modeling and then I found my PhD on manufacturing and health economics modeling and I would really like to learn more!

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With my story, I hope to inspire you to go for paths that are not obvious at first, and to enjoy learning. I am pretty much self taught at many of the models I developed. Many things were hard for me at first, but then they were worth it. I ended up teaching a statistics seminar for my research group back home and hope to, if I ever pursue a research career after my PhD, to lead a research group where experiments and modeling are much more interconnected than most in my field.

Another hope I have is that maths stops being the monster it is for many kids. At least in Portugal, the way maths are taught is so disconnected from reality. Real life examples would help so much. Even small steps like financial education and to teach how to calculate an interest rate and how to devise a savings plan would help to raise interest. I am pretty sure that, if I had a more fun experience, I would have considered going for mathematical models sooner in my career ;)

Love her story and her message! With hard work and grit, you can definitely overcome your struggles, and possibly find your niche field :). Follow Cátia's blog at apulgarita.com for her journey through her PhD, and follow her on FB, Twitter and Instagram with the handle @apulgarita! She sometimes posts results and tips on her mathematical models.