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Kiersten Ruff '11

Saving Lives with Math and Physics


Simpson College graduate Kiersten Ruff ‘11 is a superhero. No, not the kind that wears a cape and has super strength, but she’s using her mathematics and physics degrees from Simpson to save lives.

Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Computational and Systems Biology at Washington University in St Louis, Ruff’s thesis work focuses on developing models to understand the inner workings of neurodegenerative disease.

She works specifically on Huntington’s disease, a genetic disease that leads to the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and causes movement disorders, cognitive dysfunction and behavioral difficulties.

“The disease pathway is not fully understood but has been shown to involve the aggregation of a protein called huntingtin,” she said. “My research utilizes multi-scale, physics-based simulations in order to understand how and why particular regions of the huntingtin protein modulate aggregation and works to connect specific modulatory behaviors to disease progression.”

So far, Ruff’s research has produced five published scientific papers and has been recognized at several international conferences for her work. The Council Bluffs’ native has been able to work with experts in various fields from all over the world in collaborative efforts to fight Huntington’s disease.

“Given the complexity of neurodegenerative diseases, and Huntington’s disease in particular, collaborative approaches that bring together different technical expertise and ways of thinking are essential,” she said.

Ruff’s motivation to go above and beyond started at Simpson. Her professors told her that “as a math major, you can do anything,” and she says they were right.

“The combination of this ‘can do’ attitude bestowed upon me by the mathematics professors at Simpson, the support the professors offered me in the pursuit of my dreams, the quantitative skills I learned in the classroom, and the unique beyond the classroom experiences I participated in while at Simpson nevertheless prepared me for a career in biomedical research,” she said.

It was during a math modeling competition and over the course of a summer research program that Ruff realized her potential in research. She had wanted to work in research since high school, but wasn’t sure she was pursing the right path.

“By participating in the Bryan Summer Research Program and the Mathematical/Interdisciplinary Contest in Modeling I realized I had both the passion and skills necessary to succeed in research,” she said. “Additionally, both of these experiences helped to improve my communication, collaboration and critical-thinking skills – all of which were vital to succeed in graduate school.”