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Changes spawn new scientific disciplines
Mathematics, biology merge in U of A research labs, classrooms
Christie Schultz, Freelance, Sarah Dougherty, Montreal Gazette
Freelance; Montreal Gazette

CREDIT: Bruce Edwards, The Journal
U of A researchers Marjorie Wonham, left, and Caroline Bampfylde use mathematical modelling in biological studies. The work above focuses on the coexistence of crayfish and bass, and on the control of mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus.

EDMONTON - Calculus seems abstract, perhaps even useless, to plenty of non-math types, but what if you could use differential equations to figure out how to control West Nile virus or to figure out what an introduced species will do to an ecosystem?

Marjorie Wonham, a biologist and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta's Centre for Mathematical Biology, explains that the emerging field makes abstract math useful.

"When I first got here in 2002, West Nile virus was just spreading in Canada and people were wondering how to control the disease. For example, do you try to kill every mosquito that's out there -- you could try, but that's a lot of work and a lot of chemicals -- or do you try to remove all the birds, as some people suggested, because the disease moves back and forth between mosquitoes and birds?"

Luckily for the birds and the bugs, mathematical modelling helped Wonham and her colleagues find out that killing a certain number of mosquitoes will reduce the chances of an outbreak but removing birds will actually make things worse because the remaining birds are more likely to get infected.


"We can also figure out how many mosquitoes you have to kill, proportionally, using the model. In theory, a public health agency could use our model to develop a strategy for West Nile virus," Wonham adds.

Mathematical biology is emerging at a time when both economic and ecological factors matter to governments, industry and the health sector.

"The climate is changing, species are going extinct, species are invading, new diseases are emerging and all of these things are happening quickly, and we want to deal with them efficiently and effectively," Wonham says. "People are demanding a response, and we don't have time or money to try out every different management strategy we can think of."

Mathematical modelling in biological research can reduce the need to do long-term experiments and can help in proposing solutions with more certainty.

"Using modelling, you can do a 100-year experiment in a second on your computer and then you can pick, out of maybe 20 management possibilities, the best two and implement those rather than having to implement all 20 and wait around to see which one works. It's a lot less expensive to do experiments on the computer."

Similarly, post-doctoral fellow Caroline Bampfylde has found a practical use for complex mathematics. Bampfylde studies the effect of crayfish on lake fish populations. Crayfish, often used as live bait for sport fishing, can become a problem for bass fish populations. "If there are too many crayfish, there won't be as many bass. What we want to achieve is a balance," she explains.


Modelling can answer questions about what would likely happen in different scenarios without having to field test every combination of variables.

"Should you remove crayfish or add bass? Should you remove all of the crayfish now or do it over several years? You can use the model to do experiments quickly and pick the best one, rather than trying all the different experiments and waiting 20 years and hoping that one of them worked."

There's a pilot project in Michigan aiming to find this magic balance between bass and crayfish.

Wonham's and Bampfylde's colleagues use mathematical biology to research a range of issues such as changes in vegetation under climate change, elk migration patterns, treatments for cancer patients and ways to prevent or reduce forest damage caused by mountain pine beetles.

Besides the graduate program in mathematical biology, undergraduate students in both math and biology can now take courses at the U of A that combine the two disciplines.

This new scientific discipline is just one of an array of career opportunities opening up as a result of environmental, technological and social change. From researching climate change to managing health care, new types of jobs will be waiting for the next generation of graduates.

In his lab at McGill University, Robert Marchessault has been delving into how bacteria can be harnessed to make such everyday products as the coating on your milk carton.

Under the right conditions, bacteria produce natural thermoplastic materials that have the potential to replace plastics made from non-renewable petroleum. Even better, Marchessault's plastics are biodegradable.

"It's a remedy for the petroleum crisis we started to see in the 1970s," said Marchessault, professor emeritus in McGill's chemistry department. Marchessault's research is part of a larger trend known as "green chemistry," which aims to reinvent old processes or develop new ones that are good for the environment.

Marchessault says green chemistry got a jump-start in the past decade when large companies started serious research into more environmentally friendly products.

Dow Chemical Co. and Cargill, for example, have built refineries that use crops to make biofuel or renewable polymers, which are the building block of many plastics.

"Industry is compelled by public pressure to be more environmentally benign, and industry is also finding an important part of green chemistry is to use less energy," said Bruce Lennox, a professor and past chairman of McGill's department of chemistry. "Economically, it's a huge winner."


Universities have also made green chemistry a priority. McGill boasts some of the pioneers in the field, including professors Tak-Hang Chan and Chao-Jun Li, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Green Chemistry."

A great deal of environmental science ... is watching and assessing something that's happened," said Lennox. "It's useful, but it's very passive. Green chemistry will allow scientists to be proactive and make a change."

Dominic Covvey started out in physics, moved on to biophysics, made a detour into computer science and ended up in health informatics. His career path is a perfect illustration of the hybrid nature of new jobs emerging in response to societal change.

At the University of Waterloo, Covvey heads up the Institute for Health Informatics Research, a cross-disciplinary centre that draws on all departments on campus.

Health informatics uses computer science and information management to make the health-care system more efficient.

"Despite the technological advances of the last decades, the health system has lagged behind," Covvey explained.

"It still has the paper record. ... We take tasks that used to be manual and automate them or facilitate them. You can do things quicker, easier and cheaper. It may also allow you to do things better. You can check if things are going right and guide care providers."

The Waterloo Institute just hosted a "boot camp" for 80 professionals from across Canada to give them a taste of the field, which is not well known, Covvey says.

"It's been identified that there's a need for several thousand health informatics experts in Canada," Covvey said. "Schools in Canada produce less than 100 a year."

In the future, if a toxic material is released by terrorists into the air in a densely populated city, emergency workers will need to know where the noxious cloud will drift and which areas to evacuate.

Urban meteorology, which models air quality in cities, might provide the answers. It's one of many sub-specialties of meteorology now in demand as air quality and climate change become a pressing concern.

"Right now we're hiring 20 to 30 new meteorologists every year for the next five years," said Pierre Deaudelin of the Meteorological Service of Canada, a department of Environment Canada. Some of that demand stems from a wave of retirements, but the balance is fuelled by the emergence of new fields of expertise and new technology, according to Deaudelin.


"Modelling has been there for a long time, but with supercomputers, it requires more skills."

The meteorological service is also looking for professionals with expertise in earth sciences and air chemistry.

"Air quality is more and more a concern of the public, so we have to strengthen this program," Deaudelin said.

Many meteorologists start with a background in math and physics, he said, and add on a specialty diploma and training in computer science. Deaudelin is visiting universities to promote careers in the field. "It's not well known," said Deaudelin, himself a meteorologist. "It's never routine. Every day is new."

Mossadiq Umedaly is frank when asked why British Columbia became home to a cluster of companies specializing in alternative power sources and energy conservation.

"It started because B.C. is a nice place to live," said Umedaly, who sits on a government-appointed council promoting the province's technology sector.

Umedaly is also chairman of Vancouver-based Xantrex Technology Inc., whose products include wind converters, solar energy devices and battery chargers. He is the former CFO of Ballard Power Systems, a leader in the fuel cell industry. B.C.'s power technology sector includes more than 60 companies providing 3,000 jobs.

The sector's growth is being fuelled by demand for clean energy and a heightened concern for conservation.

Like green chemistry, developing smart power is a bit like teaching an old dog new tricks, Umedaly said.

So while the field needs professionals in traditional fields such as engineering, computer science, architecture and city planning, it also needs these professionals to apply their knowledge to a new set of challenges.

"The funding is there," Umedaly said. "We just have to make them more and more applied. ... The focus I'm taking is not just about skill set. It's about how one looks at solving these problems."

Alberta Learning Report

 The Edmonton Journal 2005

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