Researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute connect math lessons from Core Program with cancer research

By Lena Bae

On Tuesday, August 13, researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute spoke to 19 middle and high school students of the Confronting Obstacles and Realizing Excellence (CORE) program about the deep connections between classroom math concepts and modern cancer research methodologies. During the hour-long talk, titled “How Math Can Inform Cancer Research,” Philipp Altrock and Jessica Daniels of Dana-Farber’s Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology challenged students to reflect on the application of math in a number of real-world settings.

The CORE program, launched in 2008, is a two-week program for rising eighth, ninth and tenth graders who attend public school in Boston and Cambridge. The goal of the program is to boost students’ quantitative reasoning skills before they return to school in the fall. After assigning students to algebra or geometry classes based on a diagnostic exam, the CORE program staff instruct students through a combination of Khan Academy – an educational website that allows instructors to set individual goals and quantify progress and needs for each student – and interactive lectures.

The researchers began the event by emphasizing the importance of math concepts that students might find arbitrary today. “When I was your age,” Daniels said, “I didn’t really think of math as important. Now, looking back, I’d probably pay a lot more attention.”

To demonstrate the application of math in their field Altrock and Daniels discussed the significance of probability in evolutionary theory. After a primer on genes and inheritance, the researchers and students calculated the likelihood of resistant mutations developing during cell division.

Daniels said these types of calculations are critical to cancer research. ”We take large datasets and try to understand how [mutations] happen or where [they are] happening,” she said. “We try to understand with actual people [to learn] why they weren’t cured or why they’re regressing.”

After the lecture, students asked about specific topics from their CORE classrooms. When one student questioned the real-world application of functions, Altrock sketched a graph on the chalkboard. “Once you have a tumor, and you measure how it grows, it typically follows a curve,” he said. “Whenever you have cell division, you have an exponential function.”

The researchers admitted that they use such mathematical tools to shed light on a still mysterious process of cell division and mutation. “It’s a little like the universe,” Altrock said. “We don’t know everything about it.”