Oct 2, 2011

Rick’s Ramblings: Stochastics in Biological Systems

I can’t think of a better combination than randomness and biology (unless it is a chilled Sancerre accompanying grilled swordfish with a side of steamed asparagus). The title for this ramble is the topic for the year of activities at the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University. Unfortunately, you have already missed the opening workshop on “New Questions in Probability Arising from Biology,” September 12–16. The first two days featured tutorials by Nick Barton on “Pedigrees, Genealogies and Genomes,” John White on “Noise in the Nervous System,” and Johan Paulsson on systems biology. This was followed by three days of expository talks. Since everything is on the institute website, there is no point in listing all of the names. The organizing committee for workshop #1 (Ruth Williams, Tom Kurtz, Peter March, and I) did as Louis said in Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.”

The point of the conference, and indeed of the whole year, is to increase the number of people working at the interface between probability and biology, which has attracted far fewer researchers than the interface between probability and physics. Perhaps this comes from the nature of the subjects. Problems such as percolation, the Ising model, self-avoiding walk, random polymers, etc., are simple to state and hard to study. In contrast, in my experience of questions from biology, 80% of the problem is figuring out what the right question is, since it must strike a balance between faithfulness to the biological problem and mathematical tractability.

Mike Reed in his article in the Notices of the American Math Society (Volume 51, No. 3) asked “Why is Mathematical Biology So Hard?” I will now quote three sentences from his answer: The phenomena that mathematical biology seeks to understand and predict are very rich and diverse and not derived from a few simple principles. Because of evolution, biological systems are exceptionally diverse, complex, and special at the same time. In addition, one is trying to understand how the behavior of the system at one level arises from structures and mechanisms at lower levels.

You should read his article to achieve a more coherent picture as well as to see his recommendations about math biology in the undergraduate and graduate curricula, and in faculty hiring. If you are interested in learning about mathematical problems from biology, the MBI program is a great opportunity. There is a list (below) of the workshops for the year. The CTW’s are contemporary topics workshops, which are chosen from proposals submitted to MBI. By the time this comes out in print, you will have missed the exciting first one, so I’ll restrict my comments to the numbered sequence organized by the program committee of which I am a member, but I’ll ignore #6 which has a distinctly different character.

As I write this piece, no speakers are listed for workshop 4, but in all other cases one finds a significant number of biologists participating, and in the case of workshop 3, almost all speakers are biologists or physicists. All of the workshops address important biological topics which involve mathematical questions.

While Google is great for locating products and services, it can be difficult to learn about a topic in math biology by randomly searching for keywords. At these workshops, you will hear experts give talks about recent progress and open problems and will be able to talk to them in the generous breaks in between talks. It is very difficult to make time in our busy lives, especially at this short notice, but if you can you will have an interesting and valuable experience.

Workshops at Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University, 2011–2012

[CTW = contemporary topics workshops]

October 10–14, 2011 CTW: Spatio-Temporal Dynamics in Disease Ecology And Epidemiology

October 24–28, 2011 Workshop 2: Stochastic Processes in Cell and Population Biology

November 14–18, 2011 CTW: Free Boundary Problems in Biology

February 6–10, 2012 Workshop 3: Robustness in Biological Systems

February 20–24, 2012 CTW: Recent Advances in Statistical Inference for Mathematical Biology

March 19–23, 2012 Workshop 4: Evolution and Spread of Disease

April 16–20, 2012 Workshop 5: Spatial Models of Micro and Macro Systems

April 30 – May 4, 2012 CTW: Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine

May 7–11, 2012 Workshop 6: Algebraic Methods in Evolutionary and Systems Biology

May 21–25, 2012 CTW: Statistics, Geometry, and Combinatorics on Stratified Spaces Arising from Biological Problems

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