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"I immediately realised that mathematical biology was (and still is) a fast growing area, and as some people say, it is the science of the 21st century."

Mathematical Biology: An Evolving Discipline and Career Over 15 years

20 FEBRUARY 2004

During my days in high school in Germany I always said that I would like to become a professor in Hawaii. Well, I made it at least half way. Aged 37, I am presently associate professor in mathematics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. My area of expertise is mathematical biology, an area that I hadn't even heard of when I was an undergraduate. Therefore, I would like to describe my path to mathematical biology and as a German to Edmonton in Canada.

The goal to become a professor in Hawaii was more a dream than a plan, and not something that I needed to pursue at all costs. During my time as a high school student it became very clear that my talents lay in the natural sciences, in particular in mathematics and physics. Nowadays, I might have chosen to study computational sciences. But in the 1980s computational science was hardly a scientific discipline. Hence I chose to study mathematics and physics at the University of Münster, which is close to my hometown (though not to Hawaii), and there I completed my studies to my Vordiplom (BSc).

Developing models for biological processes
In 1989 a friend of mine, also studying maths, and I felt ready to leave the area where we grew up and to experience another university. Hawaii didn't seem to be an option. So we discussed several options within Germany that we found appealing, and we made a tour to these various places. We decided to continue our studies in Tübingen because the university has a very good reputation, the surrounding area is very nice, and the mathematics department offered classes on "chaos theory"--a hot topic in mathematics in the 1990s.

In Tübingen I met Professor K. P. Hadeler, one of the fathers of modern mathematical biology. Through his courses I became interested in this area very quickly and I decided to write my thesis in mathematical biology. The type of research done in Tübingen compares to the era of theoretical physics done by Heisenberg, Bohr, and others at the beginning of the last century. We were developing mathematical models for real (biological) processes and analysing them with mathematical methods.

On many occasions an existing theory had to be modified or further developed to be applicable to biological systems. I immediately realised that mathematical biology was (and still is) a fast growing area, and as some people say, it is the science of the 21st century. I graduated with my MSc in 1992 and PhD in 1995. Then I went on to do my habilitation in Tübingen. Habilitation is a qualification that gives one eligibility to become a professor in Germany and is roughly equivalent to assistant professor level.

In 1998 I visited the University of Utah in Salt Lake City for 1 year. In retrospect, this was the most important step in my career. The University of Utah always was (and still is) one of the centres in mathematical biology in the world. I established many important contacts and it opened many doors that ultimately led to my position here in Edmonton. In Utah I worked with Hans Othmer, one of the leaders in this field. I originally met him at a conference in Heidelberg back in 1996 and I asked him if I could come to Utah to work with him. He just said, "If you have money you can come." I "only" needed to find financial support, which of course is not so easy but also not impossible.

I heard about funding opportunities at two German research agencies, the DAAD and the DFG. I applied for a research grant at the DFG and was successful. In Utah I also met Jim Keener and Mark Lewis, two other important names in mathematical biology. (Editor's note: DFG is a Next Wave sponsor.)

Looking for work outside Germany
In 1999 I went back to Tübingen to finish off my habilitation, which I completed in July 2001. Then I suddenly faced the barrier I consider the most destructive for German academics. I could not find a permanent position. By that time my wife and I had three young children. There were two postdoc positions available--one for 2 years at the University of Bonn, or one for 3 years at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig--but nothing with a longer perspective. Hence my wife and I decided to look outside Germany.

Important countries for mathematical biology include the United States, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. There are also good schools in other countries, for example, France, Italy, Spain, China, and Japan, but Germany does not play a leading role in mathematical biology. I was aware that the University of Vancouver in Canada is another good place for mathematical biology and I applied there. In the meantime, I became aware that Edmonton was setting up a new centre in mathematical biology under the leadership of Mark Lewis. It helped that Mark knew me from those days in Utah.

Now I am a professor here in Edmonton. The climate is different than Hawaii would have been, but the University of Alberta offers a perfect environment for creative research combined with scientific education. However, I still feel sad that there is no hope for young researchers in Germany--temporary positions are no alternative! Many of my contemporaries have chosen a similar path of emigration. Indeed, of six friends who did the habilitation in a mathematical discipline in Germany around 2000, only one person stayed in the country. The others found positions in the U.S. or Canada.

Looking back at my own experiences, I would encourage every student to explore possibilities to do part of your education abroad. Use the exchange programs of your university and spend a year across (or even in the middle of!) the ocean. Apply for grants and visit the best research groups in the world (e.g., for mathematical biology in English-speaking countries I would recommend Oxford, Edinburgh, Leeds, Dundee, Amsterdam, Utrecht, Montreal McGill, Edmonton, Vancouver, UC Davis, Arizona, Ohio, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Miami, and in Germany, Berlin, MPI Leipzig, Bonn, Heidelberg, and there are many more). In the future we will see more and more centres in mathematical biology around the world, and hopefully also in Germany.

My position in Edmonton is permanent and as my family is very happy here we plan to stay. But our hearts still belong to Germany so if a good position would come up there I would certainly consider going back.

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Copyright © 2004 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.