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2016 SRE Program Participant Profiles: PENNY WU

Penny Wu photo.

Hometown: Chengdu, Sichuan, China
School: Houghton College
Major/Degree and Year: Mathematics, Senior
SRE Mentors: Vasileios Maroulas, Andreas Nebenfuehr
SRE Research Project: Using Statistical Filters to Follow Fast Organelle Movements in Plant Cells

What is the purpose of your research?
Our research is to use a statistical method called the particle filter to track the fast movements of some organelles in plant cells. The three organelles we specifically study in our research are Golgi, mitochondria, and peroxisome. The dynamic of these three organelles is hard to predict because their motions change rapidly in real time. A common way to track the movements of these organelles is manual tracking, but it is relatively costly and inaccurate. Therefore, our goal is to replace such inefficient way of tracking by using the statistical filter. We want to develop an algorithm based on the particle filter method to let the computer program track the fast movements of the organelles accurately and efficiently.

Quotation image.

I could not appreciate more the diverse environment at NIMBioS. Within our SRE program, there are students coming from all different fields of STEM. It was a great experience to exchange ideas with them and see how others approach a problem differently from me. Quotation image.

– Penny Wu, SRE participant

Why did you apply to the SRE program?
I was interested in gaining research experience in statistics/applied mathematics, because this is the field that I am considering for my graduate school. I thought participating in this kind of summer research program would help me gain more knowledge about this field of study, so that I could know better if I really want to continue to study it in graduate school.

What does the research ultimately accomplish?
If we can track the fast organelle movements accurately by our algorithm, it will be much easier for biologists to study the dynamic inside of plant cells in order to better understand the biological function of organelle movements in plant cells. With the replacement of manual tracking by computer algorithm, the tracking results will be reproducible and low cost. In this way, more accurate information about organelle movements in plant cells will be made available to cell biologists who have the interest to study the biological function of the organelle movements in plant cells.

Describe a typical day on the job.
Our project is a little different from other projects because we need to go to the biology lab to collect our data. A typical day at the lab would be using the microscope to study and video the movements of the organelles. Then we use computers to track the organelles manually. A typical day not at the lab includes a meeting with mentors to report our research progress and ask questions. Tasks are given during our meetings as well. My group usually divides the tasks and work independently, but we also meet frequently to discuss our work and ideas together.

Tell us something about your field of study we would be surprised to know.
In our research, we use particle filter to track the organelle movements. This statistical method includes two stages, prediction and correction. For the prediction stage we need to come up with our own mathematical model to update the organelle’s next location. We use a very simple model – a linear model with constant velocity. We gave it a try and surprisingly it works pretty well for tracking the organelles. It is amazing to find out how robust particle filtering is. Even with a simplistic model, it can work so well.

What were your favorite parts of the SRE program?
Connections with people! I could not appreciate more the diverse environment at NIMBioS. Within our SRE program, there are students coming from all different fields of STEM. It was a great experience to exchange ideas with them and see how others approach a problem differently from me. The faculties and staff at NIMBioS are also great to be connected to. They are all experts in their fields, and everyone is so willing to share their knowledge and experiences with us, which helps me to discover more opportunities and expand my knowledge about things I could do with math.

What new experiences did you gain that have helped you today?
I have gained so much experience with data analytics, statistics, and mathematical modeling. In my research, we basically incorporated these three areas all together. I learned a lot how to apply my theoretical learning in math to solve real life problems. Also, this is my first time ever use mathematics to study plant cells.

What advice would you give someone who's interested in/curious about participating in the program?
I would suggest to not worry about being a perfect bio-mathematician with strengths in both biology and mathematics. NIMBioS loves diversity and appreciates individuals from a variety of backgrounds.

Would you recommend our program to others?
I definitely would recommend this program to others because this is a great opportunity to learn and grow in the field you are interested in. Every faculty and staff at NIMBioS is really supportive to SRE participants. They make sure that you receive the help you need to contribute to your research.

Related Links

Main SRE page
2016 summer program

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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