Applied Mathematicians Win NSF Grants and Host International Conference

From the October 2018 Desktop News | Drs. Shibin Dai and Shan Zhao recently received two grants, worth more than $300,000, from the National Science Foundation to fund their research in applied mathematics.

To top it off, the two are serving on the organizing committee for the 2019 international National Science Foundation conference on mathematical molecular bioscience and biophysics, which will be hosted on UA’s campus in May.

According to Zhao, the most rewarding aspect of his research is collaborating with scholars from other fields, and this conference will bring together some of the greatest minds in mathematics, chemistry, biology, and physics.

As an applied mathematician, Zhao works with chemists and biophysicists to solve some of the greatest computational challenges in biology and chemistry.

“This collaborative research demands complementary expertise and experience,” Zhao said.

For his most recent NSF grant, worth more than $230,000, Zhao is working with collaborators at Clemson University to develop mathematical models and reliable simulation tools for studying the interactions between large biological molecules like proteins and their surrounding water molecules.

“This research will improve our physical understanding of electrostatics of biomolecules by capturing as much atomic details as possible in the continuum level mathematical modeling,” Zhao said. “The new mathematical models will lead to more accurate algorithms for computing binding and folding free energy of proteins, DNA, and RNA.”

Dr. Shibin Dai is also doing collaborative research, and his grant, worth more than $217,000, was awarded to help him develop and refine a mathematical model for tiny nanostructures like lipids within human cells. Dai has been doing similar research for the last seven years, and this new grant will help to expand his previous findings.

“If we get a good understanding of the mathematical model, we can get a better understanding of the structure and shed some light on how people can design new materials,” Dai said.

Dai is collaborating with Dr. Xiang Ma, an experimental chemist at Grand View University, and Ma hopes to use Dai’s mathematical models to manipulate the surfaces of various molecules and potentially prevent bacteria from binding to them.

“This research greatly advances the understanding of the functionality of nanoparticles, bioinspired materials, and biological membranes,” Dai’s abstract for the grant reports. “It helps us understand essential processes like protein transportation, drug encapsulation, and drug delivery.”

Though both Zhao and Dai say that the most rewarding aspect of the research is collaborating with faculty in other research fields and at other institutions, Dai also says that, for mathematicians, getting complex problems like these to solve is fun.

“Mathematical problems are very challenging—in some sense, it’s like a game for us.”

To learn more about the NSF-CBMS conference visit