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Natalia Trayanova on Developing Computer Simulations of Hearts


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Natalia Trayanova on Developing Computer Simulations of Hearts

Interviewed by Vanessa McMains

Natalia Trayanova on Developing Computer Simulations of Hearts

Recently, you were named the inaugural Murray B. Sachs Professor of Biomedical Engineering, which also happens to be the first endowed chair bestowed on a female faculty member at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins. How do you feel about receiving this honor?

TRAYANOVA: I was very humbled by it. There are other stellar researchers in my department who also deserve to receive endowed chairs. Dr. Sachs, my professorship namesake, was the director of the Department of Biomedical Engineering for 16 years (1991-2007), and the director of the Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute for eight years (1999-2007). This particular endowed chair is special to me, since Dr. Sachs was actually one of the deciding factors in my coming to Hopkins. I had a number of offers from other universities, but Dr. Sachs worked tirelessly with me to make sure I had adequate resources to relocate my laboratory to The Johns Hopkins University.

Many times, endowed professorships are named after someone who was at the university many years ago. You know of this person, but you have no intimate knowledge or no personal connection. It’s such an honor to have Murray’s name for my professorship, since I can directly appreciate his vision and his lasting impact on our department.

How do you prepare the young women in your lab for a career?

TRAYANOVA: I enjoy mentoring women and I think amazing women have come out of my lab. The challenge is not just to make them good scientists, to instill in them how to write the best papers and the best grants, but to also teach them how to develop other skills, like negotiating.

Recently, I took a leadership course for women faculty that went over the book Women Don’t Ask. According to the book, even if women start out with the same background and are hired for the same job, there is a disparity in the income from day one. This is because boys are raised to push back and negotiate. Society nudges boys to be competitive, whereas girls are taught to focus on building relationships and not offending anybody. So I feel that we should be focusing more on training women how to progress up the career ladder. I teach my female trainees to stand up for themselves and how to be resourceful and self-sufficient.

What influenced your decision to pursue an academic career?

TRAYANOVA: I come from a very academic family. My father, a physiologist, an M.D., Ph.D., was the director of the Biophysics Institute in Bulgaria. He was one of the first people to come to the U.S. from behind the “iron curtain” to work at MIT back in the 60s. And my mom was a full professor of economics. My sister and I were raised to pursue academic career—it was all we knew. My sister also ended up becoming a professor at Hopkins—in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

Physics was ingrained in me early on. As young as 4 years old, my dad would read me my favorite book on rockets and propulsion. I ended up majoring in physics for my undergraduate degree.

The biggest influence on my career was my dad bringing back a book from the U.S. by Robert Plonsey called Bioelectric Phenomena. I had never seen an English book because we lived in such a closed society. The book discussed electrical signals in nerve and cardiac cells. It was the first time I realized one can apply physical principles to biology, which was really a revelation for me. I did my Ph.D. in biophysics/bioengineering in Bulgaria. Then I came to the U.S. on a fellowship to Duke University, where I chose Plonsey as my postdoctoral advisor.

What do you study?

TRAYANOVA: We study rhythm dysfunction in the heart, investigating how damaged cardiac tissue causes arrhythmias—irregular heartbeats that can cause sudden death.

Our work is entirely computational. We create models—computer simulations created with mathematical equations—that mimic real situations, and we use them to predict what will happen in the diseased heart or to uncover mechanisms involved in heart function, structure and disease.

Our models are very complex and multiscale, including information from an individual protein’s behavior all the way up to the whole heart. It is like we created a Google Map of the heart, where we zoom in and see what’s happening at the molecular, cellular and tissue levels.

Do you plan to use your models in the clinic?

TRAYANOVA: My goal is to bring computer simulations to the bedside as a tool for doctors. By creating patient-specific models, we hope to personalize treatments for individuals with dangerous arrhythmias. Using data from an MRI, we would reconstruct the electrical signals in the pumping heart. The electric patterns of arrhythmias look like circulating waves or hurricanes on radar, and if you find the crucial part that sustains the arrhythmia, then you can destroy that tissue and terminate the arrhythmia. Working with physicians at the school of medicine, we would like to use these models to predict where to ablate—essentially burn tissue with a catheter.

The procedure currently used by physicians to map arrhythmias in the heart takes anywhere from about four hours to 12 hours, and the patient is in the electrophysiology lab undergoing tests the entire time. The current method also only has a 50 percent success rate, which increases to 70 percent for repeated procedures. With our models, we want to increase the success rate and reduce the time-consuming mapping process.

Computer Modeling for Personalized Cardiology

By devising computer models of individual patients’ hearts, Natalia Trayanova, Ph.D., the Murray B. Sachs Professor at Johns Hopkins University, has found ways to better treat and prevent arrhythmias. Trayanova's talk was recorded on Oct. 2, 2014, at the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences' Molecules & Martinis event held in Palo Alto, CA.