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MOST Policy Fellow Uses Science to Communicate Complicated Technical Subjects

Published on September 8, 2020

Josh Mueller, Ph.D., was fascinated by math and science in high school because it was exciting to discover that scientists could prove “things about how the world works despite the amazing complexity of biological and physical systems,” he said. “It was also perspective-changing to realize that so many properties of the world that we observe at the scale of everyday life are dictated by the behavior of impossibly small particles operating on incomprehensibly fast time scales.”

This month, he joins the inaugural class of Missouri Science and Technology Policy (MOST) Fellows as the health and mental health policy fellow so that he can serve as a useful resource when information about legislation or rulemaking is needed. “I will be learning about a broad range of issues related to health and mental health in preparation for the upcoming legislative session, including the upcoming expansion to Medicaid brought about by the recent passage of Amendment 2. I helped prepare a Science Note on this issue and hope to provide similar research and analysis on topics such as telemedicine, opioid use, and tobacco use going forward,” he said. 

Dr. Mueller said he brings familiarity with a wide range of biology and psychology literature and the quantitative background to evaluate research that uses statistical modeling to make claims about health outcomes. “I also have experience translating findings between disciplines, so I will be ready to communicate complicated technical subjects to non-experts. I love following current events and political developments at the state and national level, so I am excited to provide policymakers with research and analysis that will help them better contextualize and assess their options when working on crafting solutions to health and mental health-related problems.”

While he was studying a variety of biological systems, he became fascinated by how similar approaches could be applied to social systems, he said. For example, as the rules defining interactions between group members could dictate outcomes in scenarios related to disaster response or voting. 

He applied to the MOST fellowship because of his interest in applying his research skills and perspectives to policy-related problems. “My work has shown me how important it is to define the rules properly in order to achieve a desired outcome, regardless of the system. I also wanted to stay connected to human health, so this fellowship was the perfect opportunity to transition from a purely academic setting into an arena where I could help translate academic findings to a broader audience,” he said.

As a scientist he has expanded the scope of his research. “I’m awestruck by both the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge that has been accrued. Nearly every problem you could think of has been studied to excruciating detail, and yet so many unanswered questions remain. To me, this unending search for understanding is both daunting and exciting. I love finding common threads between research areas or using shared frameworks to synthesize knowledge across disciplines, it is really satisfying to find patterns and commonalities across fields, to realize that different people working on different problems are often thinking similarly.”

He earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and minors in mathematics and physics from the University of Pennsylvania along with earning a doctoral degree in neuroscience from the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). “I was drawn to biochemistry because I wanted to understand how inanimate chemical structures could combine and interact to give rise to life. Since I was determined to understand how atoms could create organisms, I chose to study math and physics as well to give me a quantitative understanding of the rules for life,” he said.

During his undergraduate studies he conducted research on two human herpesviruses that are associated with adverse health outcomes later in life. Though the exact mechanisms are unknown, these viruses (Epstein-Barr virus and Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus) are believed to cause cancer by hijacking and disrupting normal biological functions, Dr. Mueller said. 

This work introduced him to the concept of systems biology, that is the study of how many biological components interact to produce complex phenomena. “Seeing biology through this lens eventually drew me to neuroscience, as the brain is a great example of a system made up of many parts that interact in intricate ways to produce sophisticated behaviors. Moreover, neuroscience has a rich tradition of using mathematical and computational approaches to understanding biological functions, so I felt that the subject fit my skills and interests perfectly,” he said. 

He chose to pursue a doctorate in dynamical neuroscience at UCSB because the program offered “amazing interdisciplinarity and freedom to be creative with my research. I was able to work with neuroscientists, physicists, biologists, statisticians, engineers, and computer scientists to approach questions about the brain from many different angles. Due to the complicated nature of brain-related systems and behaviors, I thought it would be important to use tools from many different disciplines, as no one approach would hold all of the answers,” he said. 

While at UCSB he was a part of the Complex Systems Group headed by Dr. Jean Carlson. “Broadly speaking, the group uses mathematical modeling approaches to characterize the behavior of systems composed of many interacting parts,” Dr. Mueller said. In the past, the group has studied wildfire behavior, epidemic spread, gut microbiome growth, bone structure formation, and brain network organization, illustrating the utility of network modeling and the amazing creativity of the group. 

He said, the best part of his doctorate work has been working with talented collaborators across disciplines. He was recently an author on a paper describing a mathematical model of gut microbiome population growth and has finished a project on changes in brain network organization over the course of a human female menstrual cycle. “These studies were made possible by the brilliant and generous scientists with whom I worked, and I feel lucky to have learned so much from them,” Dr. Mueller said. 

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