UMBC logo

Undergraduate Researchers

David P. Stonko, Mathematics and Statistics

Building a Mathematical Model to Understand the Molecular Interpretations of Spatial Gradients of Biological Activators

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Bradford E. Peercy and Dr. Michelle Starz-Gaiano


Small alterations in biochemical signaling can be transformed into major differences in cellular decisions. Our interdisciplinary project revolved around the conserved Signal Transduction and Activator of Transcription (STAT) signaling pathway and the regulation of cell decisions. The STAT pathway is essential in stem cells, immune function, and some cancer progression. We took advantage of a simple system in Drosophila ovaries to identify the mechanism that determines STAT activation and results in the transition of stationary cells to migratory ones. STAT activation is initiated by diffusible molecules radiating from a localized source, generating graded activation in neighboring cells. Cells closest to the source robustly activate downstream signaling, and become mobile cells; distant cells downregulate signaling and are stationary. A heuristic model of the molecular interactions can capture how graded signal is converted to activation of motile cells. We analyzed this model to determine the critical parameters and determined its underlying mathematical structure and relationship to the biology. We began to construct a biophysical model to inform new testable hypotheses. We will continue to polish this biophysical model and conduct genetic and cell biological experiments to understand how epithelial cells can convert analog information into the binary activation of a molecular pathway.


A graded is signal converted to binary activation

When and how did you find out that you could do independent research or creative work as a UMBC undergraduate?

UMBC always says that undergraduates can get involved in research so I approached a few professors to see if I could lend a hand.

How did you find a mentor and decide on a project?
After talking to a few professors it was recommended that I apply to UBM (Undergraduates in Biology and Mathematics). So I did. I applied to work with Dr. Peercy on the Math side and Dr. Starz-Gaiano on the Biology side and eventually I was selected. The project that we are looking at is an extension of a project that Dr. Starz-Gaiano has been working on for several years.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?
All of the projects in UBM are at the interface of Biology and Mathematics and I have had an interest in both fields so it fit perfectly.

What academic background did you have before you started?
I was at the beginning of my second year when I applied and was chosen. I had finished most of the core requirements for my B.S. in Math and had taken a few biology courses. If you were like me (or you have done more) then apply!

What has been the hardest part about your research/creative work? The most unexpected thing?
Its fun! Any undergraduate who likes to see their work or ideas come into fruition should get into a lab. Its a lot of fun learning new things and getting insight into how research works.

How does your research/creative work relate to your work in other classes?

Since I am a math and biology double major my work fits right into what I am learning. In fact, my genetics professor talked about a gene that we work on today.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
Everyone should talk to a professor in their department and see who is doing research on topics that interest them. Here at UMBC there are plenty of opportunities to get involved.

What are your career goals?
I want to go to medical school and do research similar to what I am doing now. I am hoping that this work could provide the initial stepping stones to get there.

How did you decide to present your work at URCAD this year?
My UBM team which includes myself, Xuan Ge, Dr. Peercy, and Dr. Starz-Gaiano decided that we would like to present the topic we are working on.

Was the application difficult to complete? How much did your mentor help you with the application?
The application was pretty straightforward. Our mentors helped us with all of the sections that we did not know the answers to.