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MUNI Seminar Series links mathematics with neuroscience and economics with sociology

The MUNI Seminar Series regularly offers lectures on current trends in science and the opportunity to meet leading figures from different fields in three areas.

Michal Horný at Mendel museum.

This spring’s speakers included Nobel Laureate Thomas R. Cech in the Life Sciences section, Max Planck President Patrick Cramer, mathematician Kathryn Hess Bellwald, who combined algebraic topology and neuroscience in the Mathematics, Physics & Computer Science section, and economist Michal Horný and sociologist Emily C. Dore, who combined economics and sociology in a lecture on population health and health equity in the Social Sciences & Humanities series. Let’s take a brief look at the world of algebraic topology and health economics.

Topologists are interested in what properties of shapes stay the same under continuous deformation, says mathematician Kathryn Hess Bellwald

Kathryn Hess Bellwald, a professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), is renowned for her research in algebraic topology, as she bridges the gap between complex mathematical theories and the concrete applications.

“Topology is the mathematics of shapes. To demonstrate what this means, we can start with the famous joke about topologists not knowing the difference between a cup of coffee and a doughnut. The basic thing they have in common is the presence of a hole, either in the middle of the doughnut or in the handle of the cup. If the coffee cup and the doughnut were made of plasticine, all you would have to do is squeeze and deform them. Topologists are interested in what properties of the shapes remain the same under such constant deformation, if you don’t cut them, glue them or anything like that,” says Kathryn Hess Bellwald, who is applying topological insights to complex brain networks as part of the Blue Brain project. The aim of the project is to create a computer reconstruction of a rat’s brain.

Kathryn Hess Bellwaldová

“By studying individual parts of the brain, we get dense maps of the underlying neural network. Using the tools of topology, we can tell that certain parts of the network are more complex than others. We can see that the more complex parts of the structure are there to ensure its robustness and reliability. On the other hand, a complex structure is expensive, slower, consumes more energy, and you would sometimes like to be able to encode information more efficiently. That’s what the less complex parts of the network are for. Topology helps us figure out if that is the only thing that is specific about a network compared to any other network, and study the biological implications,” says Hess Bellwald of the findings that are pushing our understanding of neuroscience.

The mathematician has organised an Euler course for young mathematical talent in Switzerland, is committed to a more diverse research environment and supports her colleagues through the Women in Topology initiative. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking in the mountains. Kathryn Hess Bellwald has already told us more about herself in an interview, which you can read in the News section of the MU Faculty of Informatics website.

How to improve people’s access to healthcare and reduce health inequalities

A joint lecture on health equity at Masaryk University was a highlight for sociologist Emily C. Dore and health services researcher Michal Horný.

Emily C. Dore

Michal Horný studies the public health system and is dedicated to finding ways to improve people’s access to healthcare by reducing financial barriers, which is particularly important for low-income people. Emily C. Dore focuses on the social determinants of health, social welfare and economic policies that could reduce health inequalities between social classes, genders, races and ethnicities. Both researchers also compared the Czech and American healthcare systems and drew attention to the issue of population ageing, which will affect the Czech Republic in the coming years.

“The ageing of the population will be a major challenge for the Czech healthcare system in the coming decades. Not only will there be more elderly patients needing care and fewer people of working age to fund the system through their taxes, but there will also be fewer doctors, as there is a disproportionate number of doctors of retirement age in the Czech Republic. The success of the Czech healthcare system in combating the effects of an ageing population depends on the ability of policymakers to design and implement a comprehensive reform that will make the healthcare system more efficient over the next few years. Delaying solutions to this problem will only make the situation worse,” warns Michal Horný.

Michal Horný, Emily C. Dore and host Jakub Hlávka.

You can read more about the two researchers’ future plans, their experiences of research funding and the promotion of work-life balance at American universities on the Faculty of Economics and Administration website.

If you are interested, you can watch the recordings of both lectures on the MUNI Seminar Series YouTube channel.