Young Mathematician’s Dream for “Mathematical Biology in Korea”

Writer : KAIST Date : 2016-09-29 Hit : 3825

[Interview] Prof. Kim Jae Kyoung, Dept. of Mathematical Science

Actively engaging in domestic and international joint research activities

and lectures to publicize mathematical biology

Mathematical modeling to control biological clock

Joint effort with Pfizer to develop new drugs 


Young Mathematician’s Dream for “Mathematical Biology in Korea” 이미지1


“Can mathematics do something that can shape the world? My job is to use  mathematics to solve the puzzles of biology,” explains Prof. Kim Jae Kyoung of the Department of Mathematical Science at KAIST. “Returning to Korea, I set a goal to help establish mathematical biology in this country.” 


Prof. Kim Jae Kyoung, now in his second year as a professor, returned to Korea in August 2015, after spending some years as a post-doc researcher at Ohio State University’s Mathematical Biosciences Institute. This was his first step to introduce mathematical biology to the nation where the discipline had remained obscure. 


With one thousand years of history, mathematical biology is a discipline to analyze various phenomena of life with the elements of two different academic areas. “Every process going on within the human body can be expressed mathematically,” explained Prof. Kim. He also added, “If we cannot outpace developed countries in terms of the amount of research investments, we might have to take advantage of our brains,” emphasizing that mathematical biology is suitable for Koreans as an area that specifically requires sresearch using information and computers.  

The era of molecular biology began when James Watson and Francis Crick found DNA structures in 1953, and mathematical biology also came into the limelight. As the era of analyzing data from observation was followed by the emergence of the complexity of living organisms, mathematics became an essential tool to express complexity as a set of formulas.

“This particular discipline provides mathematical models to biologists who have to conduct simulations in a wide range of biological areas encompassing drug testing, cancer, diabetes, and immunity. It offers hints to help scientists solve problems,” said Prof. Kim. “Because biological studies require lengthy experimental processes from the point of establishing hypotheses and initiating experiments, it is efficient to launch the process with a highly probable hypothesis.”

He continued as he pointed at the large computer on his desk. “My lab does not have any experimental tools, but this computer allows us to conduct research at a relatively low cost. Most of the expenses are spent for purchasing software programs and printing.”

“Jumping into the new field of biology was challenging, but intriguing as well,” observed Prof. Kim, who studied mathematics as an undergraduate. “The more I studied, the more perspectives I developed.”


Prof. Kim had a meeting with overseas partner institutions during the last vacation. He recounted how he encountered mathematical biology. 


Young Mathematician’s Dream for “Mathematical Biology in Korea” 이미지2  

A change of course inspired by one column: “My job is to introduce mathematical biology to the public”


“As an undergraduate student, I was sometimes skeptical about solving mathematical problems already solved by someone previously,” noted Prof. Kim. “I wanted to use mathematics to make a difference.” 


While pondering upon the potential uses of mathematics, Prof. Kim began his military service as an officer and read a column that introduced him to mathematical biology. The column said that the first mathematical biology society was to be established in Korea. “When I returned home during a break, I hurried to a nearby library and began reading books on mathematical biology,” he recalled. “I instantly fell in love with it.”


Discharged from the army, Prof. Kim decided not to study at the Korean graduate school he was admitted to and instead flew to the United States to explore mathematical biology. He studied mathematics in a master’s program, while concurrently attending undergraduate biology courses.


“It had been several years since I had studied biology since high school, and it was not easy at all because biologists and mathematicians take entirely different approaches to the same data, with different questions and solutions,” explained Prof. Kim. “But that is also why they can find new ideas and outcomes when they engage in joint research.”


Prof. Kim developed his ideas on new disciplines and convergence while studying mathematical biology in the United States, and to this end he is vigorously participating in outside activities. “It would be a big success for me if my article to introduce mathematical biology could inspire any student to have interest in this new discipline.”


Prof. Kim believes that, as a researcher, he has a duty to introduce what he studies, in addition to achieving outstanding research outcomes. “I try to give as many interviews and lectures as possible, as I hope my activities will inspire aspiring students in mathematical biology, just like one short column led me to pursue a career as a mathematical biologist.”


One of his goals is to teach students who do not even understand the point of learning differential and integral calculus, how mathematics can be applied in our daily life. At a special mathematical event given at the National Science Museum in May, Prof. Kim delivered a lecture on the theme “Mathematical biology to solve challenging biological problems.”


Prof. Kim has to travel around the world frequently due to his joint study with the biological field. “I tend to visit a number of research labs overseas during my vacation to have meetings,” he said. “I visited five different countries over the past two months.” He has already spent around 90 days abroad this year, and he often has video conference meetings early in the morning in his room.


Mathematical modeling to help new drug discovery: “All partner institutions are my customers”  


Among the various branches of biology, Prof. Kim has a particular interest in biorhythms. In October 2015, he drew significant attention by addressing a challenging problem in the area of biorhythm study that had remained unsolved for over six decades.


Our biological clocks have a protein called “Period2,” which repeats production and decomposition at a regular interval and maintains our biorhythms. However, it had been unknown why bio-clocks are consistent despite the changing temperatures and seasons, although proteins are supposed to be affected by temperature.


With mathematical modeling, Prof. Kim discovered the switch (phosphorylation) that controls the production and decomposition of Period2 as temperature changes. This finding was proved by a test conducted by the research team of Duke-NUS Medical School. “I am not sure if I would be lucky enough to have another achievement like that,” noted Prof. Kim.


Recently, Prof. Kim has taken a step further from the understanding of biological phenomena and has begun with Pfizer, a global pharmaceutical, developing drugs to cure broken bio-clocks. A malfunctioning bio-clock is likely to cause health problems, such as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, or breast cancer. Prof. Kim emphasized that, “If a drug is a variable of the equation, we need a mathematical modeling to understand the effects of such variable.”


What distinguishes this study from the previous ones is that it involves the modeling of actual effects of drugs. “The existing research tended to be passive and only focused on measuring the quantity of drugs left inside the human body,” explained Prof. Kim. “However, this new study conducts modeling of drug effects in a range of environments: how much a certain drug controls the bio-clock, and how different timing and seasons for ingesting drugs bring different effects.”


During his doctoral program, Prof. Kim held a part-time job at Pfizer to help simulate a drug in the clinical phase 2. The next clinical phase began based on the successful simulation, and Pfizer asked Prof. Kim in October 2015 to conduct a joint study. The full-scale collaboration was launched this year.


“Pfizer is only one of the many joint research teams, but its reputation as a global pharmaceutical put me in the limelight,” said Prof. Kim, pointing at the names of various partner institutions written on the blackboard. “These are all my customers.”

Young Mathematician’s Dream for “Mathematical Biology in Korea” 이미지3 

Mathematical biology became visible in Korea only about a decade ago. Whereas biologists and mathematicians did their own research within the respective disciplinary boundaries, the two groups are now increasingly crossing the border and collaborating with each other.  


“Large global pharmaceuticals have separate mathematical modeling groups, and modeling has a significant advantage of drastically cutting the cost of drug development,” added Prof. Kim. “Although it had been not easy to access mathematical biology in Korea due to the short history of new drug development, I am confident that the discipline will bring more applications in step with its advancement.”  

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