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Army research grant could employ physics theory to control epidemics, understand brain

September 19, 2017

Uwe Tauber and students

Uwe Tauber and students
Left to right are Sheng Chen, Ruslan Mukhamadiarov, Uwe Tauber, Riya Nandi, and Jacob Carroll, all part of a team looking at the physics theory of critical dynamics.

Two Virginia Tech College of Science researchers are spearheading a $1.6 million U.S. Army Research grant with the idea that critical dynamics theory – that is, the effort to find order and control in the most chaotic and noisy patterns – can help stem the spread of disease during a potential epidemic or help doctors better understand the brain.

Uwe Tauber, a professor in the Department of Physics and director of the Center for Soft Matter and Biological Physics, and Michel Pleimling, also a professor of physics and director of the Academy of Integrated Science, are leading the effort. Seven graduate and two undergraduate students are working on the funded research project as well and will be joined by a post-doctorate researcher. The collaboration also involves P.S. Krishnaprasad, a professor with the Institute for Systems Research and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The researchers will take the well-known theory for nonlinear stochastic dynamics of cooperative multicomponent systems – or critical dynamics – and develop new standards to understand and steer critical complex systems toward a desired and controllable outcome, even within highly fluctuating scenarios. In other words, the researchers will take what is now perceived as chaos and random noise – think bubbles in boiling water or static on a television – and then find patterns and establish control possibilities. 

Michel Pleimling

Michel Pleimling
Michel Pleimling serves as co-principal investigator on the research project.

If patterns and control mechanisms can be found in such scenarios, the resulting concepts and mathematical tools could be used to track and control the spread of disease or civil unrest or better understand the workings of the brain’s neurons, Tauber said. New theories also will impact the sciences from how physicists understand magnetism to how biologists see ecological systems.

“Our research team has begun to explore a wide range of potential applications that span from materials science, such as magnetism and surface growth, to synthetic biology, neuroscience, epidemiology, ecology, and social system dynamics,” Tauber said of work done since the grant was awarded in March.

The theories that come from Tauber and Pleimling’s work could find broad use in distinct areas. Think of the work as a Hollywood film set – say, the interior of a castle – that can be redressed to fit any genre: an action film, a historical drama, or a horror flick. The basic castle set remains the same, but finds unlimited uses as its adopted by different users for different purposes.

Tauber said the Army is investing in the atypical research because it values “fundamental research as the origin of many subsequent very useful applications.” He added, “Understanding complex cooperative systems is definitely a crucial challenge and would open many new applied research avenues as well.”

Funding will be split among Virginia Tech and the University of Maryland, with three quarters of the $1.6 million going to Blacksburg and the remainder going to College Park.

Virginia Tech students working with Tauber and Pleimling include undergraduate researchers Alexandra Bosh, of Chesapeake, Virginia; and Ada Warren, of Daleville, Virginia; and graduate researchers Ahmadreza Azizi, of Tehran, Iran; Jacob Carroll, of Boyce, Virginia; Sheng Chen, of Liyang, Jiangsu, China; Ruslan Mukhamadiarov, of Sosnogorsk, Russia; Riya Nandi, of Kolkata, India; Shannon Serrao,, of Mumbai, India; and James Stidham, of Springfield, Illinois.

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