10/10/2014 Peter Durantine

Using Mathematical Equations to Understand Obesity, Origami

Mathematicians say math can be applied to anything. Even obesity and origami.

"Anything that happens -- you can write an equation about it," said Christina Weaver, a Franklin & Marshall College assistant professor of mathematics and an organizer of a joint math colloquium series. The purpose of the colloquium, shared by F&M and Millersville University, is to expose the two academic communities and the public to interesting math research.

On Oct. 16, Diana Thomas, director of the Center for Quantitative Obesity Research at Montclair State University, will discuss "The Mathematics of Obesity" from 4 to 5 p.m. in Stahr Auditorium of Stager Hall.

The following week, on Oct. 23, Cornell University Associate Professor of Mathematics Tara Holm will discuss "The Geometry of Origami: How the Ancient Japanese Art Triumphed over Euclid," from 4 to 5 p.m. in the Ann & Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building's Bonchek Lecture Hall.

Thomas focuses her research on developing, validating, and applying mathematical models to obesity-related issues. She has devised algorithms to objectively quantify food intake during weight loss.

"Her talk will actually explain why anecdote is not a good way to study obesity, because what people think they eat and what the actually eat are very different," said Professor of Mathematics Annalisa Crannell, chair of F&M's mathematics department.

Crannell said Thomas has developed body composition models that predict changes in weight in response to altered diet, increased exercise, and pregnancy through her work with researchers in medicine, physiology, nutrition, and computer science. Translating mathematical models of weight regulation into applications "does a really good job of dispelling mythologies and showing us what actually works," she said. 

Holm, a graduate of Lancaster Country Day School, earned her B.A. from Dartmouth College and her Ph.D. from MIT.  In her senior year at Lancaster Country Day, she enrolled in an F&M calculus course taught by Crannell. Holm will discuss how origami -- the Japanese art of paper folding -- can save lives.

"Think about unfolding a road map. You want to unfold it slowly or you will tear it," Crannell said. "Now think about air bags in cars. You don't want that air bag to unfold slowly, and you don't want it to tear."

Before joining Cornell, Holm spent a year at the University of Connecticut and was a National Science Foundation mathematical sciences research postdoctoral fellow for three years in the Department of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley.

  • Cornell University Associate Professor of Mathematics Tara Holm will discuss "The Geometry of Origami: How the Ancient Japanese Art Triumphed over Euclid," at the Joint Math Colloquium Series from 4 to 5 p.m. Oct, 23 in F&M's Ann & Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building's Bonchek Lecture Hall.
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