‘Physics in Medicine and Biology’ topic of Saturday lecture series

In a continuing effort to make science accessible to the general public, the Department of Physics and University College, both in Arts & Sciences, are offering their annual fall Science Saturdays Lecture Series.

Beginning Saturday, Sept. 29, four faculty members will describe their research on successive Saturdays. The theme of these lectures is “Physics in Medicine and Biology.”

The talks, which are free and open to the public, will be held at 10 a.m. in Crow Hall, Room 201. Each hour-long talk will be followed by a question-and-answer session.

“We have an enthusiastic group of between 150 to 200 people who turn out on Saturday mornings to learn about various topics in science,” said Michael W. Friedlander, Ph.D., professor of physics, who started the lecture series in 1994. “We can’t get them to leave after a lecture — they mill around talking and asking questions. They find the talks very enlightening.”

The lecture series schedule:

Sept. 29: “The Intelligence of Biological Cells” by Anders Carlsson, Ph.D., professor of physics.

Carlsson says that biological cells are able to process information in remarkably sophisticated ways, accomplishing tasks such as finding nutrients and even traversing mazes. The underlying machinery that allows cells to perform these tasks includes cell surface sensor molecules and numerous different types of biochemical switches.

Carlsson will look at the inner workings of the cell’s chemical hardware and describe how the combination of simple elements into intracellular networks allows it to make complex decisions based on the external environment.

Oct. 6: “Assessing the Quality of Medical Tests” by James G. Miller, Ph.D., the Albert Gordon Hill Professor of Physics and professor of medicine and of biomedical engineering.

Miller noted that occasionally there will be a newspaper article describing a promising new medical test that achieves an accuracy of some percentage. Although, on the surface, it would appear reasonable to discuss the quality of such a test in terms of its “accuracy,” Miller said his audience will discover that “accuracy” can be a very misleading measure of the quality of a medical test.

His lecture will explore a series of ways to characterize the quality of a test. Illustrations will be drawn from everyday (non-medical) encounters, such as passing through the metal detectors at an airport.

Oct. 13: “How Does the Brain Work? Our Journey to Gain Insight Into the Functioning of the Brain” by Ralf Wessel, Ph.D., associate professor of physics and assistant professor of neurobiology.

The brain is the result of an evolutionary process and consists of billions of interconnected neurons. Connectivity between neurons is neither random nor regular, said Wessel. Most neurons produce sequences of pulses, by which signals between the neurons are exchanged. Neurons make changes in the incoming pulse trains. The signal flow in the brain is not just feedforward. Rather, feedback dominates most pathways.

Wessel said scientists don’t know yet which concepts will be useful in understanding the brain. He will describe processes likely to be important guideposts on the journey to gain insight into the functioning of the brain.

Oct. 20: “The Laws of Classical Physics Govern What Cardiologists See and Hear” by Sandor J. Kovacs, Ph.D., M.D., associate professor of medicine, of cell biology and physiology, and of biomedical engineering and adjunct associate professor of physics.

Clinical cardiologists employ multiple invasive and non-invasive imaging modalities, such as echocardiography, MRI and CT, by which the function of the heart can be seen, heard and assessed. Kovacs will discuss the relationship between some imaging-based indexes of heart function and the fundamental physical laws that govern the action of the heart.

Because an interesting aspect of how the heart works is its filling phase, according to Kovacs, he will emphasize diastolic function and the physical laws that govern it.

For more information on the lecture series, contact the Department of Physics at 935-6276 or visit ucollege.wustl.edu/freelect_sciences.php.