Mathematics Deciphering Health and Music

Mon, 07/23/2018
UCI School of Physical Sciences Communications

Natalia Komarova sees mathematics as a universal language that will help us understand science, music, health and many other disciplines. And her diverse research is proving just that.

The UCI Chancellor’s professor and School of Physical Sciences mathematics professor applies mathematics to multiple areas, including her latest research in understanding the evolution of music and what comprises a successful tune, as well as research in understanding cancer, specifically drug resistance affecting cell growth and cancer treatments.

“I don’t see cancer and music studies as that different from one another because mathematically,  they can be described by similar equations. They both are examples of evolutionary processes,” Komarova shared. “That’s what’s great about applied mathematics, it provides a rigorous framework to which we can study cancer, music or other areas. Math gives us a precise way to reason about things, try out hypotheses, and determine if our assumptions were correct.”

In her study on drug resistance of cancer cells, Komarova explained that she is using math equations to determine the rate at which cancers grow and the rate at which drugs affect cancer cells to determine how to best treat cancer.

“Mathematics can be very useful in discovering treatment options,” Komarova said. “We use mathematical models to run tests on the computer to see how different drug treatment options will affect a patient, before they would ever be applied to treatments on animals or humans.”

It is through similar applied mathematics that Komarova set out to study the latest trends in music and what makes a song successful. Inspired after listening to her eldest daughter’s music one day and noticing how different the music sounded compared to what Komarova listened to growing up, she decided to apply math to see how music has evolved over the years.

Analyzing more than half a million songs from 1985-2013, Komarova determined that over the past 30 years, music has become less happy, more aggressive and more danceable. Thirty years ago, most songs were by males, and now most songs are by females.

“After seeing these music trends, we dug deeper to study the most successful songs and discovered that these songs were almost like a different species. They seem to be happier than the other songs, more danceable and even more often from females.”

Komarova’s research didn’t stop there. “I thought, well maybe we can predict success based on these features.” Together with colleagues, she wrote an algorithm that was 75 percent accurate in predicting whether a song would be successful. Komarova added, “Once we added the superstar feature [past success of songs on the chart], then our algorithm accuracy went up to 85 percent.”

This type of vision and depth of research across disciplines also resulted in a recent distinction as a UCI Chancellor’s Professor.

“I started my career as a physicist in Moscow and always saw myself going into research,” Komarova shared. “I saw that mathematics was a tool to understand the natural phenomena, and these tools have given me the opportunity to study the world more deeply and to see the world more clearly.”

Next up, Komarova is diving deeper into her cancer cell research, to study the role of the random microenvironments on cell growth and death, which is a great thing for the future of the STEM fields and UCI.

“I try to be a role model for my students, who are the next generation of researchers, and talk with them about their different career opportunities, to show them that anything is possible.”