Memorial Stadium towers over the University of Nebraska-Lincoln city campus, acting as a college football Mecca for Nebraskans all over the state. But what might be most impressive about the stadium occurs not on the field, but in the Schorr Center research labs beneath it.
Within those labs, researchers like Tyler Barker work day in and day out to mash together two different scientific fields in a holistic and cooperative effort.
Barker is a graduate research student in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Molecular and Biochemical Telecommunications lab, which is headed up by Dr. Massimiliano Pierobon and housed in the June and Paul Schorr III Center for Computer Science and Engineering, located on the south side of Memorial Stadium.
The goal of the lab, funded by two National Science Foundation grants, is to examine the technological concepts of telecommunications and apply them to cells in biological systems. As it turns out, the cells within the human body communicate with each other quite similarly to how humans use technology to communicate.
“Basically what we’re trying to do is understand biological systems just as well as we understand telecommunications,” Barker. “Hopefully we’ll then be able to go ahead and apply the same analysis concepts we use there to those biomolecular ideas.”
The lab works in conjunction with another research lab based out of the University of Maryland, which focuses more on the biomolecular side of things. Barker said this works in his favor, as most of his background (and the backgrounds of the other dozen graduate and undergraduate researchers) lies in computer engineering and information technology.
“Basically what we’re trying to do is understand biological systems just as well as we understand telecommunications,” SAID Barker. “Hopefully we’ll then be able to go ahead and apply the same analysis concepts we use there to those biomolecular ideas.”
“The programs that I was working with during my undergraduate dealt a lot with molecular biology, so I got to enter that biology,” Barker said. “It’s quite a bit different than what I’m used to in a lot of ways.”
The example Barker and his cohorts point to to illustrate where the worlds collide is how signals are broken down and how they relate to how cells communicate with each other.
“Right now we aren’t sure how accurate that is, but it’s the closest model we have,” he said.
Barker said he finds the lab’s research interesting to him as a computer scientist because it asks him to confront the limits of standard computing and look for new avenues to help keep computer technology developments constantly innovating.
And that’s where most of Barker’s individual research component lies. Information transfer is at the heart of every system interaction in biology just as it is in computer technology, but in technology there does exist a limit.
“We will reach a limit on how well we can make CPUs and computers,” Barker said. “We’re going to have to look to other concepts, and I think biology is a great place to start.”
It’s a field in computer science that is mostly unexplored from a research prospective, and Barker hopes to find answers by looking into information transfer limits in biology.
“We do know that there is a limit to the amount of information we can get out of a system, per energy,” he said. “We’re just wondering how efficient a biological system is when it transfers information.”
The total goal of the project is to gain an understanding of how cells communicate and how they affect each other. The next step is to see how populations of cells communicate with other populations and how they affect the biological systems they make up.
“You may hear a lot about the gut-brain access,” Barker said. “How the brain and the gut interact is really interesting, and really the only way we really will be able to understand it is to first understand how those communities of cells are interacting, which is where the telecommunications concepts come into play.”
It may seem confusing to the average undergraduate just passing by during the week, but Barker and the rest of the MBiTe researchers are fueled every day by the prospect of delving into what they describe as an exciting and mostly unexplored realm in scientific research.