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Undergraduate Researchers

David Stonko

David Stonko, Mathematics and Statistics

“A Force-Based Approach to Unraveling the Mechanism of Cell Migration”

Faculty Mentors: Dr. Michelle Starz Gaiano, Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Science
Dr. Brad Peercy, Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics


Cell migration is essential for the normal development of multicellular organisms. Despite its prevalence throughout biology, the mechanism of cell locomotion is poorly understood. This is especially true of the situation where a cluster of motile and non-motile cells translocate together. Our team studies a genetically orchestrated process of this type within Drosophila melanogaster. During development migratory cells begin in the epithelium, differentiate, form a cluster and collectively migrate toward a chemoattractant. This movement is dictated by forces that act between neighboring cells. To understand these interactions we constructed a force-based ODE model of the dynamics of adhesion, repulsion, migration and stochastic fluctuation between cells. Our results indicate that our model is sufficient to reproduce the behavior observed in vivo. Moreover, this model predicts the behavioral change associated with altering the number of migratory cells, provides insight into the mechanism sufficient to cause rotation in the migratory cluster, and makes predictions about the epithelial to motile transition of the inchoate cluster. This model will thus be useful for streamlining experimental work, providing a context to interpret experimental results and for elucidating the mechanism of collective migration from fundamental bio-physical interactions.

When and how did you find out that you could do independent research or creative work as a UMBC undergraduate?
From the very beginning of my freshman year I had heard about the support given to undergraduates to do research here at UMBC. As I began to get into my coursework in Mathematics and Biology I began to realize that these stories are not fairy tales, but are the experiences of everyday students. I was also encouraged to get involved in research by several professors, who would eventually become my research and (later) my thesis mentors. Their encouragement in conjunction with the culture of research at UMBC inspired me to do research.

What academic background did you have before you started?
When I first became involved in research at UMBC I was finishing up my sophomore level mathematics courses and introductory chemistry and biology. Even with only these basic courses I was able to contribute because my mentors spent the time to catch me up and provide assistance when I required it. I encourage everyone, regardless of where you may stand in your coursework, to begin speaking with your professors and consulting programs that interest you.

How does your research/creative work relate to your work in other classes?
It has been amazing to see my work in the lab translate into not only my coursework, but also to real world situations. It has helped me become a stronger critical thinker, expanded my interpersonal skills, helped me to work better on a team, and given me perspective into the nuances of interdisciplinary research. It also contributed to my success on the MCATs and with tutoring other students.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
Get involved! It is an amazing and unique experience. If you are a mathematics or biology major then I encourage you to check out the same program that I have had the honor to be a part of. It is called UBM, for Undergraduates in Biology and Mathematics research training program, and is an amazing program that approaches problems that lie at the interface of mathematics and biology.

How did you find a mentor and decide on a project?
I first met Dr. Peercy when he was my instructor for Linear Algebra in the spring of my freshman year. During this class he introduced me to the extremely interesting work that he was doing in the field of Mathematical Biology. This was around the same time that the UBM program was starting up here at UMBC, so I applied to work with Dr. Peercy and Dr. Starz-Gaiano on a project. It was one of the best decisions that I made here in my time here at UMBC.

What are your career goals?
I am currently in the process of preparing to apply to medical school. My dream is to get into medical school and become a surgeon. I have no doubt that my undergraduate research experience here at UMBC and the amazing mentoring that I have received has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in helping me reach my goals.

What else are you involved in at UMBC?
In addition to the work I have described here, I am also a member of Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity, on the Men’s Club Volleyball Team, the Director of Institutional Development of SGA, a Member of the Pre-Medical Society, on the Math Team, an OPA and a Woolie. I am also a lab assistant at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute with Dr. Ryan Riddle, and I am a grader for the Department of Mathematics and Statistics here at UMBC.


3/5/2013