Dynamic Research
Professor builds strong interdisciplinary research team with NSF grant
Thursday, August 5, 2021
Hoa Nguyen and two students work at a laptop discussing math modeling.

Success begets more success for mathematics professor Hoa Nguyen, Ph.D., who’s now earned a second NSF grant.

This year, Nguyen wrapped up her first NSF grant (NSF DMS-1720323), a four-year collaboration with co-PI Hakan Basagaoglu, Ph.D., at the Edwards Aquifer Authority. The group collaborated with Trinity physics professor Orrin Shindell, Ph.D., to develop a numerical model to simulate the growth and deformation of viscoelastic biofilms in shear flow under different nutrient conditions. A separate collaboration with UC Berkeley biology professor Mimi Koehl, Ph.D., and Tulane University mathematics professor Lisa Fauci, Ph.D., studied how different cell morphologies affect the swimming and feeding of choanoflagellates (protozoans that share a common ancestor with animals). These research projects and several others on bacterial chemotaxis and collective motion have been conducted with the aid of 12 Trinity students, with six being fully supported by the prestigious grant.

“Thanks to the NSF grant I was able to provide stipends to female and first-generation students, who are underrepresented in STEM,” Nguyen says. “The grant has had a significant impact on educating our undergraduates and supporting faculty and student interdisciplinary research activities.”

And Nguyen is now on the cusp of a brand-new collaborative NSF grant, (NSF DMS/NIGMS- 2054259), in which laboratory experiments, mathematical models, and computer simulations will be used to study the hydrodynamic mechanisms that determine the performance differences between unicellular and multicellular choanoflagellates. This grant totals $1,016,977, split three ways between collaborating research groups at Trinity, UC Berkeley, and Tulane University. This interdisciplinary project will advance scientific understanding on the evolution of multicellular animals from a unicellular protozoan ancestor while providing undergraduate and graduate student training, postdoctoral professional development, and mentoring at all levels.   

This isn’t the first time a small liberal arts university like Trinity has rubbed elbows with bigger research institutions. And it won’t be the last, says Nguyen, thanks to Trinity’s strong culture of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“The interdisciplinary work we proposed was key to winning these NSF grants,” Nguyen says. “Our work is being conducted in biology, physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering, and it was very exciting to see the enthusiasm from the recruited students from all of these STEM fields.”

Nguyen’s team of students for Summer 2021 includes Robert Swallow ’22, an engineering science and physics double major from Las Vegas, Nevada; Jacob Dean ’23, a computer science major from San Antonio, Texas; and Leacadia Silveira ’22 a mathematics major from Austin, Texas. Nguyen and Shindell co-mentored these students while collaborating with Trinity biology professor Frank Healy, Ph.D., and Centre College physics professor Bruce Rodenborn, Ph.D. They incorporate experiments and simulations to determine the mechanical efficiency of different motile bacteria near surfaces in complex fluids.

“We need all of their skills and experience in order to make the project work,” Nguyen says. “We need a collaboration paradigm with two-way communication between experimental investigations and mathematical modeling. That is, the mathematical models and resulting computational simulations will not only incorporate experimental data but will also provide feedback information with insight into new experiments.”

This summer, the team built and used numerical methods describing fluid-structure interactions, dynamically similar macroscopic experiments, and microscopic experiments to study how bacteria move in fluid environments. “We’re trying to understand, what are the advantages of bacteria living near surfaces?” Nguyen explains. “Examining ecology like this can tell us more about the evolution of living things.”

Robert Swallow outdoor protrait

Swallow instantly identified this interdisciplinary research project as an opportunity to build on his engineering skills. “When Dr. Nguyen gave me the opportunity to work in this lab, I jumped at it,” Swallow says. “I’m building a 3D model of a full bacterial cell, then changing different parameters to replicate different scenarios. And I’m also thankful for Dr. Shindell for providing really good advice in terms of matching my computational models to experimental observations.”

Moving from theory to practice, Swallow adds, is also a gratifying moment for any undergraduate researcher. “When I’m able to see exactly where the theoretical aspects of this type of biophysics reflects in the actual simulation code, and I can pinpoint where theory and numerical approaches both agree—that’s a satisfying moment, because then I can start applying your work to more specific questions I have in my research.”

Dean, as the resident computer science major, has learned how to set up and run an open-source software package with parallel features. “The software I’m running is complicated, so that requires a computer science major. It’s all about understanding the code and the software framework behind the simulation. I get to learn how the method works when you change the code.”

Jacob Dean headshot

And one of the best lessons that research at Trinity can give to computer science majors, Dean adds, is getting to work and understand unfamiliar code. “Writing code is one thing, but getting experience reading and understanding someone else’s code, that’s very difficult, and it’s a valuable skill to have,” he says. “So when you see code actually working—and you know why it’s working—that’s the best part.” 

Silveira has also gotten to explore a more applied side of her mathematics major.

“I’ve ended up doing a lot of coding and computer science-based tasks,” she says. “My studies have been more theoretical, focused on pure math, but the work I’m doing for Dr. Nguyen’s lab is definitely applied or computational.”

Silveira urges other students considering interdisciplinary research to give it a try. “I was curious as to what the collaborative setting of a lab was like, the sort of team,” she says. “I appreciate the skills I’ve gotten in this environment, and it gives me a better picture of the fields I could go into for math.”

Learning what your major brings to a laboratory setting is one thing, but Silveira also says that there’s a benefit to learning how to collaborate with people with different skills. “It was great to work with and learn from Dr. Nguyen. She’s been working on this project for years and consistently done a good job integrating an effective team.”

Nguyen says this type of positive energy is one of the reasons she’s loved working with Trinity students on her NSF grants. “These grants give you the ability to train undergraduate students, to get them involved in every aspect of the research. They get to form models, to implement simulations, and then they get to present their work at conferences, even international ones, and then be a significant part of publications,” she says. “I’m thankful for the generous support from Trinity and the powerful impacts of these NSF grants which help me stay at the cutting edge of the computational fluid dynamics field in a liberal arts environment.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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