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Dr Maria Barbarossa Using Mathematics to combat the Corona Pandemic

© Mathias Daum

Ms Barbarossa, you have been a fellow and research group leader of the CMMS (Centre of Multiscale Modelling, Analysis and Simulation of Biological Processes) LOEWE cluster at the FIAS in Frankfurt/Main (Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies) since 2020. Can you tell us something about your work there? My group is developing mathematical models and methods to help us understand multiscale processes, i.e. processes that occur on multiple spatial and temporal scales, in immunology and the dynamism of infectious diseases. This means, for example, that we make calculations so that we can predict with a fairly high degree of probability the development and spread of an epidemic. To do this, we combine theoretical approaches with clinical and experimental data. Our current projects are helping us understand homeostasis (equilibrium in many small or large systems), infection and inflammation (e.g. in the newly approved ENABLE cluster), sepsis and systemic inflammation (SCIDATOS, with Heidelberg University), and the spread of COVID-19 and controlling it.

COVID-19 spread across the world as a pandemic almost at the same time as you started your new job. How has this influenced your work? Enormously. Even just before I officially started my work in Frankfurt, thanks to the support of the FIAS board and the head of the "Jülich Supercomputing Centre" Thomas Lippert, I was able to start closely cooperating with colleagues from the Jülich Research Centre on the topic of the spread of COVID-19. We have been working on the German data on the pandemic since March 2020. While we initially simulated the effect of non-pharmaceutical control measures (e.g. contact reduction in the population), we are now also working on models of vaccines and virus variants. Our weekly forecasts of cases and death rates are mapped in the German and European forecast hubs. The special thing about what we are doing in this project is our work in real time. This is something completely different from regular mathematics research, but it is incredibly interesting for me and for everyone else involved and we are happy to be able to help with the fight against the pandemic through our work.

And even though it was impossible to foresee that COVID-19 would dominate my work almost round the clock when I accepted my position, excellent conclusions can be drawn from the findings of the research into the current pandemic for the CMMS project too. In addition, the topic connects very well with my projects on sepsis research. Even though any infection can lead to sepsis, this complication seems more common in patients who suffer greatly through COVID-19.

LOEWE CMMS has set itself the long-term goal of gaining a comprehensive understanding of both simple molecular biological processes and the complex behaviour of organisms. What do you think you can achieve through LOEWE funding, which would not have been possible otherwise? LOEWE funding provides a great opportunity and allows me and the other scientists to conduct independent research through the financial support. What is also special is the interdisciplinary make-up of the research landscape in Frankfurt; as a result, I was connected to the experimental cooperation partners from the outset. We were therefore able to expand existing research projects and develop new ones, even during the first LOEWE year.  

In your opinion, what is the importance of pure research for society? Pure research is essential for our society, because it forms the basis for many results in applied research, which are often achieved years later. You can find many examples of this in biology and medicine. If you start a project as pure research, you usually do not know how far you will get or what progress you will make – or reach the goal at all. The nice thing about it, however, is that you often achieve surprising and unexpected results.

You were born in Italy in 1984. Looking at your CV, you decided to move to Germany at an early stage and you have worked in various cities and universities. Was it a conscious step to come here and what has it given you professionally and personally? In retrospect, I would say it was a mixture of random events and a conscious step – combined with a bit of luck. I came to Germany through the Erasmus Programme in 2005. I was in my 5th semester studying mathematics and was able to go to Munich because the Technical University of Munich was an Erasmus partner of the Università degli Studi di  Perugia – my home university. In Munich, I was able to focus clearly on mathematical applications, especially in the life sciences, for the first time. Of course, my move also gave me the opportunity to learn German and make a large international circle of friends. After the Erasmus Programme ended, I applied to take a master's degree course at the university in Munich and subsequently stayed on for my PhD. While I was there, I had the opportunity - and the honour - to work with Karl Peter Hadeler (1936-2017), one of the German founders of mathematical biology. This time provided me with a clear sense of direction for my academic career. And although I travelled across Europe, the USA and Canada during my PhD and the first two-and-a-half years of my post-doc studies, which I spent in Hungary, Germany always felt like my academic home, even then: it was the country where I wanted to live and work permanently. In Heidelberg - my next stop in Germany - I had the opportunity to delve deeper into mathematical approaches and applications in medicine and immunology and combine them with epidemiology. As an independent group leader at FIAS within LOEWE CMMS, I can now continue developing these topics and I am very much looking forward to this.

About the Person

  • Junior research group leader "Mathematical Immunoepidemiology" at the LOEWE cluster CMMS

Published in ProLOEWE NEWS

Issue 01.2021 / March


Four new LOEWE clusters have been attracting state funding since 1 January. We would like to present them to you in the first ProLOEWE NEWS 2021. The BAMP! LOEWE cluster has received a special award: the scientists working on the project have been invited to the 2020/2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture. Find out how AI can help in epilepsy research and how to make what is hidden in nature visible in the reports on LOEWE CePTER and LOEWE Nature 4.0. There is also a lecture series by LOEWE TBG and Senckenberg this year entitled "Nature's blueprint - how genomics is revolutionising our view of biodiversity".

ProLOEWE faces

A portrait of Dr Maria Barbarossa, Fellow and Research Group Leader at LOEWE CMMS