Though she calls herself a mathematician, Franziska Michor’s work on mathematical models of cancer doesn’t fit neatly in that field or in the field of cancer biology. Instead, Michor is working in uncharted scientific territory, building bridges among math, computer science, biology, and medicine to answer questions about the origins of cancer, relationships among cancer types, and the emergence of drug-resistant tumors.
“I’m less interested in puzzle solving or very basic things that are not applicable to real-life situations,” says Michor, who is currently based at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York City. Though her research skills involve equations and computers rather than a pipette or a scalpel, her goal is the same as any other researcher in the oncology field: to eliminate cancer.
This unique approach to translational research earned her, in 2008, an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health to model the biology of cancer stem cells. And in 2009, Michor became the principal investigator of one of the National Cancer Institute’s 12 new Physical Sciences-Oncology Centers, a program that supports collaborations between natural scientists and clinical researchers to study cancer using new approaches. As part of that center, Michor and Eric Holland, an MSKCC physician-scientist, are working to predict the cell of origin for brain cancers and certain types of leukemia. If researchers better understood when and in what type of cell mutations arise, they’d have a better idea of how to choose the right treatment or develop new treatments, says Michor, who is just 27 years old.
Michor “has a skill for communicating with medical people, and probably that is the most important aspect of her success,” says theoretical biologist Yoh Iwasa of Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, one of Michor’s longtime collaborators. “She’s not just a translator,” he adds: She captures the essence of a medical question and reframes it as a problem she can study using mathematics…….
“With math, if you do it once — unless you made a mistake — it’s going to be the same every time you do it. However, if I put on my biology hat, it’s very hard to come up with a mathematical model that abstracts at the right level because [the biology is] very complex. It’s almost an art, really.” — Franziska Michor