Developing Data-Driven Mathematical Models to Study Cancer 

Michigan Minds Special Series: Women in STEM


In this episode of Michigan Minds, mathematics professor Trachette Jackson, who is also a member of the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center, explains the field of mathematical oncology and her work in developing data-driven mathematical models to study cancer. Jackson also provides words of wisdom for women and girls interested in pursuing careers in STEM programs.

“Because cancer is such a dynamic, complex, multi-scale disease, we need mathematical oncologists to help describe these processes using mathematical tools and methods. The real goal is to just improve therapeutics and to raise hypotheses that can then be tested by biologists and clinicians,” she says.

The models that Jackson develops connect molecular events associated with tumor growth to temporal changes in proliferation, mitigation, and survival of multiple cell types that make up the tumor microenvironment.

“In our work, we have to carefully calibrate and validate our models with experimental data. Then once that’s done, we can use the models to make predictions about how best to deliver cancer therapies and maybe even facilitate a deeper understanding of why therapies sometimes fail,” she says.

By using mathematical modeling computation, they can test and predict the outcomes of new combinations of drugs over a wide range of different parameter values, representing how different patients may respond.

“This can be an invaluable experimental and clinical resource, and eventually could potentially lead to patient-specific treatment optimization, which I think is where we’d like to see the field moving.”

Jackson’s recent work includes studying how to better predict ways to administer combination therapy involving traditional chemotherapy and a therapy that targets cancer STEM cells.

By creating and validating a mathematical model to investigate the impact of a new therapy on tumor growth, Jackson and colleagues predicted the responses of tumors to STEM cell targeted therapies and traditional chemotherapy. They used the model to test different dosing strategies.

“The model was able to show that if you gave repeated cycles of pretreatment with STEM cell targeted therapy followed by a week of chemotherapy, you could get two synergistic responses and better therapeutic outcomes. That’s one example of the way we use mathematical modeling and the kinds of questions we try to ask and answer,” she says.

Jackson finds her work rewarding for multiple reasons, including seeing her mathematical results used to help guide the administration of new therapies and the opportunities she has to work with students and postdocs.

“That is definitely rewarding, to train the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists,” Jackson says.

She also is proud of the role she played in the launch of the Association for Women in Mathematics, which creates research networks for women in the field. She organized the first conference that allowed senior women to meet, mentor, and collaborate with the brightest young women in the field.

“I was able to serve on a committee that was charged in catalyzing the launch of even more of these kinds of networks. Now the Association for Women in Mathematics has launched over 20 of these. It’s really great. I’m so proud of these. They have built strong, long-lasting connections between women who are working in various fields of mathematics,” she says.

She feels that having female role models is an important part of recruiting more women and girls into STEM fields.

“We have to show girls the power of women in STEM careers. We’ve got to highlight all the influential women.”

“By seeing the success of other women and the impact that they’ve made on STEM fields, I think girls will feel more inspired and more motivated, and will maybe want to think about careers in STEM a little more.”

She encourages students interested in STEM programs to believe in their own excellence and find something they are passionate about.

“It’s okay to be a beginner. Just know that you have it in you. Find that passion and then pursue that passion with consistency and rigor and vigor, and you will be a success at it.”


This episode of Michigan Minds is a part of a special series focused on women in STEM as we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11. Listen to more episodes from this series