Computational Engineering Alumnus Pursues Graduate Studies in Oncology

August 4, 2020

photo of caleb phillipsCaleb Phillips is one of three alumni of the inaugural class of the computational engineering undergraduate program at The University of Texas at Austin. After graduating in 2018, Phillips began conducting research in mathematical oncology as a graduate student in the Oden Institute of Computational Sciences and Engineering. Learn more about his experience in the newly established COE program and how he is applying the knowledge gained from this degree toward his current graduate work.

What courses and projects as a COE major helped prepare you for graduate studies at the Oden Institute?

The courses that prepared me most for my graduate studies at the Oden Institute were CSE 397 Introduction to Computational Oncology, COE 347 Introduction to Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) and COE 352 Advanced Scientific Computation. I really gained a passion for mathematical oncology research and that has continued to be my focus throughout grad school with a hope to influence how patient specific care is given through mathematics.

In CFD, I learned so much about numerical methods to solve all sorts of problems. This was really the beginning of my journey in simulation from the mathematical perspective. This continued in COE 352 — I still remember classes where Dr. Dawson pretended we were in industry and pushed us to apply what we had just learned to solve industrial problems. In the design courses, I got to work on simulating a NASA space travel mission and simulating wind turbine dynamics with an idea of optimizing wind turbine blades for maximum efficiency. These projects felt like we were in industry trying to develop software packages to solve real world problems. 

What do you think makes the COE undergraduate program unique?

I believe the variety of topics and projects you get to study make the program really unique. Throughout my undergrad career I got to work on projects in spacecraft trajectory and mission planning, oncology modeling, and air flow over a turbine and surrounding an arrow. All of that was just my coursework, no outside research. The opportunity to test completely different fields and discover what I really enjoyed makes COE unique. With each passing year the department is adding more flexibility with classes and expanding the number of fields students can be involved in.

What degree are you seeking as a graduate student and who is your faculty advisor?

I am working toward a Ph.D. in Computational Science, Engineering, and Mathematics at the Oden Institute at UT Austin! My advisor is Dr. Thomas Yankeelov, the director of the Center for Computational Oncology at UT Austin. 

What does your graduate research involve?

When a cancerous tumor grows to a certain size, it runs out of nutrients and sends out proteins to recruit more blood vessels to supply more nutrients to it. These vessels form complex networks and are responsible for both nutrient and chemotherapeutic delivery. My research has been to develop mathematical models to predict the new growth of vessels, a process called angiogenesis, and the blood flow and corresponding nutrient delivery throughout these new vessels. This process is key in understanding and making predictions of patient tumor growth, as chemotherapeutics are given through the bloodstream, and the real amount of therapy that makes it to the tumor are computed by the flow characteristics of these small vessel networks. We hope to bridge the gap between the microscale (new vessels on the order of microns) and the macroscale (MRI imaging that is on the order of ~200 microns) where patient information is actually acquired.

What do you plan to do after graduate school?

Great question! My current goal is to become a professor with close ties to research hospitals working to make patient specific decisions and optimizing therapy for cancer patients. I would love to do this in an international setting and spend some time after graduate school working at an international research institution across the world.

computational image of tumor cells
Research image representative of Caleb Phillip's research: the left and center panels show microscopy images of an artificial blood vessel growing through time. The tumor cells (shown in green) release proteins that cause the endothelial cells (making up the blood vessel, shown in red) sprout and grow out toward the tumor cells. The right column shows our models’ prediction of the growing vessels.