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Finding meaning in formulas

Diploma student Aziza Yusupova at the intersection of mathematics and neuroscience

Finding meaning in formulas
Finding meaning in formulas

21/09/2020 - Trieste

“I want to search for a meaning in the formulas, and I want to see their applications in real life. My main purpose is to do useful discoveries for human beings in the future.” This is the motto of Aziza Yusupova, a Quantitative Life Sciences student from Uzbekistan, and this was the idea that guided her through an intense year of study at ICTP. Yusupova has just completed the Postgraduate Diploma Programme course with a thesis on models of memory storage in the brain, supervised by Professor Alessandro Treves from SISSA.

At the beginning of her academic pursuit, however, she had slightly different interests. “I used to be more into exact science. I used to be a pure mathematician,” says Yusupova. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in pure mathematics at the National University of Uzbekistan, in Tashkent. She then moved to Kyungpook National University, in Daegu, South Korea, to study Applied Mathematics for her Master’s degree. “I started to feel that I needed more visual representation of what I was studying in mathematics,” she recalls. “I wanted to apply my mathematics knowledge to real-world problems.”

The desire to get closer to reality led her to the life sciences, where she could apply mathematics to biology or neuroscience. This is why she decided to apply for ICTP’s Postgraduate Diploma Programme in the Quantitative Life Sciences section. This year, the QLS Diploma courses have been added for the first time to the learning opportunities at ICTP, focussing on subjects like Quantitative Biology, Neuroscience, Ecology, Evolution and Artificial Intelligence, and aiming at giving a solid theoretical background for analysing and modelling different phenomena in life sciences.

“The interesting thing for me is that real life is a lot more complicated than a simple formula,” says Yusupova. “It is not possible to enclose the life sciences into a formula, in a perfect analytical way. We have to use computers, simulations, approximations.” The transition from abstract mathematics to life sciences has not been simple, as she had to study subjects such as biology and neuroscience, as well as several programming languages, such as Python, all new to her. But the hard work was worth it, as it opened up a world of options for her mathematics skills. “I cannot imagine mathematics without applications, or life sciences without a mathematical base, so this is the perfect spot in between for me,” says Yusupova.

Yusupova became interested in studying the brain and the functioning of memory when realizing that many neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or epilepsy, are still not easily diagnosed or treated because they are not yet very well understood. “The brain is a very complex system and much of it is yet unknown, especially in its internal dynamics,” says Yusupova. “Neuroscience is gaining increasing popularity because it is now clear that in order to control a system you have to first understand it fully, and this is certainly the case of the brain. Moreover, nowadays there are more accurate technologies and enough computing power to perform experiments and simulations of the brain, compared to the past.”

At ICTP, Yusupova's thesis focussed on various models of memory and learning processes in the brain, both in the areas of the cerebellum and hippocampus. She studied the energetic cost of memory processes, looking for models that minimize these costs. When the brain learns something, it performs a series of memorization processes in the neuronal circuit that have an energetic cost. For example, when somebody learns how to reach a specific place, at first they would probably choose a longer path, or get lost. But time after time, at some point, they will find the optimal path and memorize it, and finally be able to reach the destination without even thinking about the path anymore. In the brain, this means that when memory is fully stored it minimizes the costs in terms of energy, and the memory storage is optimized. This is also why if you read a book at night, the next morning what you learned is much clearer, because during sleep the brain clears all the unnecessary noise, in order to store the memory in an optimal way.

Yusupova comes from a land rich in history and culture. Her hometown is in the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan, where the scientist Muḥammad al-Khwārizmī was born around 780. He is considered one of the most important scientists in history, having made great contributions to mathematics, astronomy and geography. Most notably, the word algebra comes from the name of his book “Al-kitāb al-ǧabr wal-muqābala”, on the resolution of first- and second-degree equations, a milestone in the history of mathematics. Moreover, the word algorithm comes from the Latin transcription of its name.
Nowadays, according to the 2015 UNESCO Science Report, Uzbekistan is a country with a high literacy rate, but with a rather low overall investment in research and development. Recently, the country intensified its efforts in R&D as well as in the Science and Technology sector. However, as of 2011, only 5.4 people per million population have a PhD in science, 30% of which are women. According to the Report, research in Uzbekistan is even more endangered by the fact that two thirds of researchers in the country do not hold a PhD degree or its equivalent, and, on the other hand, almost all PhD graduates are more than 40 years old, with half of them aged over 60.

Before deciding to apply for ICTP’s Diploma Programme, Yusupova was working as a mathematics instructor at the international branch of Turin Polytechnic University in Tashkent and admits she felt some social pressure against her decision to study further and pursue a career in science. Her family, however, supported her choice, and they do even more now that she has successfully completed her course and has been offered a PhD position in Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience at the Institute for Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology in Basel, Switzerland. This top-notch centre is specialised in the field of eye diseases, and is one of very few in the world to work with human retinas. Yusupova is going to work on the retina circuits and their connection with the zones in the brain that are specific to vision. “There are still many eye diseases that doctors cannot diagnose and treat,” says Yusupova. “I am going to work in a field at the intersection between statistical physics, computer science, medicine and mathematics. It's very nice to know that what you are plotting on a screen has a meaning in real life. This is my passion and I really like it.”

The year spent at ICTP helped her feel more competent and confident for this new and exciting phase of her academic career, in spite of the hardships that she and her fellow Diploma students endured due to the Covid-19 outbreak. For most of the year, Diploma lessons had to be held remotely, with students attending from their homes. “I believe that it couldn't have been better than that, everybody did their best,” says Yusupova, “but when you turned off your camera and the Zoom call was finished, you found yourself alone in your room and it was very difficult to stay in the right mood for studying well.”

During lockdown, apart from a closer connection with professors, supervisors and colleagues, Yusupova missed the environment of everyday life on the ICTP campus, the atmosphere of mutual exchange and support. “ICTP has a very good scientific environment and everywhere on campus people discuss about science, about what they do,” says Yusupova. “Here at ICTP I felt more motivated, I felt like there are people that are passionate about their work, that care about other human beings, about the world and the environment, and I feel not alone!”


---- Marina Menga