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A Sick Baby Sparks a Father's Research
by Dave Reid


From Dateline (March 27, 2003)

Charles Lee, assistant professor of mathematics, and students, from left, Shazia Khan, Tram Hoang and Lorena Ortiz discuss their collaboration on a mathematical modeling project dealing with the treatment of neonatal jaundice. The project was inspired by Lee's son Preston, who was born one month premature with the condition.

Unlike some mathematics research projects that may deal with abstract concepts and complex theorems, Charles Lee, assistant professor of mathematics, has been working on a research project in which there was a tiny human face - the face of his son Preston, who was born one month premature with neonatal jaundice.

Preston, now 4, and the mathematics research project he inspired, may help doctors and parents deal with this ailment. Already, the research has been accorded national and international recognition.

Neonatal jaundice, which affects nearly two-thirds of all preemies, is a condition that turns the skin yellow. Because the baby's liver is not fully developed, it cannot process the normal amount of bilirubin that then builds up in the bloodstream and spreads to the body's surface, causing the skin, eyes and inside lining of the mouth to appear yellow.

“It was scary for me and painful for the baby,” said Lee, a member of the university faculty since 1999.

While Preston Lee was recovering, his father put on his professor's hat and began developing a mathematical model for the transport of bilirubin in the human body. The research has been supported by an Undergraduate Research/Creative Support Initiative provided through the Faculty Development Center.

Lee was aided in his research by math majors Shazia Khan, Lorena Ortiz and Tram Hoang. Khan is now tutoring math and science students at Chaffey Community College; Ortiz is a graduate student, and Hoang will be graduating in May. Hoang was involved in the research as a Ronald McNair Scholar.

The students, who normally deal with mathematics and not medicine, did extensive research into medical and biomedical areas, according to Lee, who earned his doctorate in applied mathematics from UC Irvine. “I have been blessed with wonderful students, and these are some of the best.”

Last December, the resulting research project won the best paper award at the International Congress on Biological and Medical Engineering in Singapore.

The student researchers also presented the project at the national joint meeting of the American Mathematics Society and the Mathematics Association of America in Baltimore. Hoang also entered and won one of the top prizes in the March 11 CSUF Student Research Competition. It will be entered in the systemwide contest May 2-3 at Cal State Stanislaus.

In addition to the group presentations, Hoang gave a poster presentation of the project at the Southern California Research Day at Caltech. Khan presented the research at the 2002 Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. Hoang presented the findings March 14-15 at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of Utah, where the paper was selected for presentation from among 2,300 student abstracts submitted.

In their mathematical model, the researchers incorporated three treatments: blood transfusion (used in extreme cases); phototherapy, in which the babies are bathed in light to bleach the bilirubin in the skin and make it water-soluble; and medication.

“Our goal is to find, by observing the serum bilirubin concentration, the optimal treatments to bring the concentration of bilirubin down to a normal level,” said Lee.

“In short, our mathematical model for neonatal jaundice, including its treatments, provides the fundamental tool to investigate the effectiveness of individual treatments, a combination of treatments, treatment starting times, severity of the condition, and the rate of improvement of the liver, with or without breastfeeding, etc.

“It also serves as a testing ground for new treatment or new medication and can be adapted for other bioengineering applications,” stated the researchers in their paper.

The findings, accompanied by charts and graphs, will be submitted for publication.

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