ARIT 2017 Poster Session Feature: Christoph Augustin

Going beyond pure text, bridges will feature Austrian scientists from a new perspective in 2018, taking creative cues to communicate their science in a different light, tone, and color.

Discover the work of Christoph Augustin, our ninth scientist featured in the ARIT 2017 Poster Session Showcase.  

What do I want to achieve with my research?

Rather than with text, our scientists, answer this essential question using an image, emoji, cartoon or limerick.

 

Cardiac models with computers will be
A wonderful tool for clinicians – to see
     If devices are a need,
     Or interventions will succeed.
Those are the prime motivations for me! 

 

[Almost] no words: How people see me as a researcher

Your Science in Action: Computer Modeling of Cardiac Function

When Christoph Augustin began his studies at Graz Technical University, his chosen field was technical mathematics. Over the following decade, his interests evolved toward a PhD in engineering science and, currently, a postdoc in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley:  specifically, computer modeling of human heart function. 

Nearly 400 years ago (1628), William Harvey wrote De Motu Cordis and De Circulatione Sanguinis (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood), published in Frankfurt. In the ensuing centuries, scientists’ determination to understand human cardiac function has unveiled great structural and physiological complexity in this life-sustaining “pump” and the mechanical processes that power it.

Augustin’s ARIT poster research was motivated by the role of cardiovascular disease (CVD) as the primary cause of death and disability throughout the world.  In the EU alone, CVD-related costs exceed €196 billion annually. As medical imaging and computing become more capable of modeling complex cardiovascular physiology, the use of such models will contribute increasingly to clinical decisions and strategies for treating CVDs.

Augustin currently focuses on computer modeling of electrophysiological, mechanical, and fluidic aspects of cardiac function using anatomically accurate and highly detailed geometries of the heart and blood vessels. His doctoral work developed a mathematical approach to simulating the mechanical function of cardiovascular tissue and, as he has expanded these simulations to encompass the electrophysiology of the heart and blood flow, his expertise with biomechanics, mathematical modeling, and computer engineering has been invaluable.

“I like my research field for many reasons,” explains Augustin. “The fact that it integrates methods from different disciplines: electrophysiology, biomechanics, hemodynamics, metabolism, cell mechanics & biology; the large scope of both clinical and industrial applications; the wide variety of data sources used (imaging, sensors, omics); and the focus on multiple biological scales (organ, tissue and cell). Thus, it is only feasible with a team of researchers clinicians, mathematicians, engineers, software developers …”

Among the variables to be incorporated into a computer model of cardiac function are: stretch and contraction of cardiac muscle fibers, tissue distribution of calcium ions (which help initiate and sustain contraction), electrical activation patterns of the heart’s intrinsic pacemaker, and cardiac blood flow – with pressures varying from peak (systolic) to trough (diastolic) during each heart contraction.

The modeling also aims to simulate heart function in a personalized way, designing models that simulate a specific patient’s physiology, pathophysiology, and response to treatment. One of Augustin’s 2016 publications reported development of a “patient-specific, anatomically accurate, whole heart electromechanical model” based on MRI scans with resolutions (220 µm to 880 µm) near the cellular level. 

Of course, the acid test of a model is to compare simulated and clinically recorded data to see how closely the model’s function matches that of the intact (albeit impaired) heart. In a 2016 paper by Augustin and coworkers, electromechanical models of the left ventricle and aortic root for four pediatric patients allowed simulations of a patient’s heartbeat – from processing image data to evaluating computational results – within one day!  Although the models had reproduced clinical data with acceptable accuracy, Augustin and his colleagues then used data assimilation procedures and machine learning techniques to further calibrate input parameters so the models’ behavior approximated clinical data even more closely.

Centuries of animal experimentation have enabled scientists to estimate the effects of medical or surgical interventions in heart disease. Yet, Augustin notes: “Computer modeling research provides enormous potential for reducing or even replacing animal experimentation and testing. As the Virtual Physiological Human Institute says: ‘Stop animal experiments … start computer simulations!

Developing models of the human heart – even a specific human heart! – is a huge advance in patient evaluation and treatment. Devices such as mechanical heart valves and stents can be “tested” by computer modeling to “probe the effect of different therapeutic options and identify which therapy yields the best post-treatment outcome.”  Notably, these tests entail no risk of pain for the patient(s) who benefit from them! 

“The intent is to improve people’s lives, and reduce animal testing, and it basically doesn’t include elements that aim to harm people,” says Augustin. “Our research will have a profound personal (improved quality of life), medical (reduced mortality rate), scientific (mechanistic insight), and economic (reduced medical costs) impact on society.” In this pervasively positive and collaborative field, everyone is looking forward to those advances.

My favorite scientist: 

If I have to decide on one scientist it would be Marie Skłodowska Curie; she was not only the first person to win two Nobel Prizes – to date the only person to win in two different sciences – but she was also known for her honesty and moderate lifestyle. Also, she decided not to patent her most famous discovery, the radium-isolation process, so that the scientific community could do research unhindered. As a computer scientist who mainly works with open source software this is inspiring. I am very honored that she is the namesake of my current fellowship. My honorable mentions include Alan Turing, often called the father of computing, who didn’t receive the honors he deserved during his lifetime; Lise Meitner, known for nuclear fission, an outstanding scientist in a very difficult time; Nikola Tesla/Albert Einstein, both eccentric geniuses and nowadays household names, who popularized science a lot.

If you read one science website/ blog/ book, it should be:

As a trained mathematician: Numberphile – Loving the world of numbers.

Without science, I would be:                                                                                  

a mountain guide.

My Eureka moment was when:

I have to admit that I didn’t have a singular or obvious Eureka moment. However, life as a mathematician and computer scientist is full of small Eureka moments. In mathematics you think about a problem for days without getting any further and suddenly the solution pops up in the back of your mind. I remember waking up in the middle of the night searching frantically for a pen and a piece of paper to write down an idea I’d just figured out during my sleep. I still keep pen and paper readily available on my bed stand – just in case.

On the other hand, being a computer scientist almost feels like leading the machine to have these little Aha! moments. Programming a piece of software to solve a specific problem usually takes a lot of time and, initially, the algorithm (almost) never works. So you spend days to months debugging the code, sometimes close to a nervous breakdown and ready to throw in the towel. Yet, probably nothing in my research is more rewarding than the point when the pieces finally fit, the computer seemingly has its Eureka moment, and the software gives you the long-desired result!

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ABOUT THE SERIES

The ARIT 2017 Poster Session Showcase will highlight select Austrian scientists of the Research and Innovation Network Austria. These scientists all participated in the coveted ARIT 2017 Poster Session, after having been selected by an expert jury from the ASCINA network and the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation

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ARIT 2017 Poster Session Feature: Stefan Tschauko
 

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Wednesday, 12 December 2018