Mathematical biologist applies hard data to soft science

Brent Wittmeier, Edmonton Journal

Published: Monday, March 05 2012

Mark Lewis was a twenty-something ecology student at the University of Victoria when a professor made a simple suggestion that would change the course of his life: enrol in some math classes.

Facing "big questions" of population dynamics and causes of extinction, Lewis turned to equations and computer programming. Course work evolved into a double major, then an Oxford PhD, finally a Canada Research Chair in the blossoming interdisciplinary field of mathematical biology.

In the three decades since he took the advice, the curly-haired academic had watched data collection techniques evolve alongside computer processing power. Lewis has tracked migratory patterns of wolves, sea lice infestations in wild salmon, and the spread of the mountain pine beetle, while winning the CRM-Fields-PIMS Prize, Canada's top mathematics award.

Mark Lewis is one of the recipient's of this year's Killam research fellowship.View Larger Image View Larger Image

Mark Lewis is one of the recipient's of this year's Killam research fellowship.

John Lucas, The Journal
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"It worked for me," said Lewis, 49, head of the University of Alberta's Centre for Mathematical Biology. "Putting together the quantitative tools and the biological side meant I could solve problems where other people couldn't, so it gave me that little bit of an edge."

On Wednesday, Lewis was named one of seven Canadian researchers awarded the 2012 Killam research fellowship granted by the Canada Council for the Arts. The fellowship gives the U of A $140,000 to cover Lewis's teaching and committee duties for the next two years.

Having shaken down millions in major grants over his career, Lewis insists that this one is special. Funding may be the lifeblood of research, but the fellowship frees up an even more precious commodity: "It's not about the money," Lewis says, "it's about time."

That time will be with weeds, pests, and invaders: plants, insects, and crustaceans that reproduce quickly and wreak havoc on Canadian ecosystems. Lewis will help create math-based models to predict where these invaders will go, what they'll do, then create a decision-making framework to cut the time needed to decide how to act.

There are times and places for simple modifications of human activities, quarantines, or eradication. It's not always clear which one is best.

"Academics often work on very long time scales," Lewis said. "If a new invasive species is detected, decisions have to be made on a quick time scale. Once they (the invasive species) are well established, there's not a lot you can do to control them."

Lewis will be collaborating with the Canadian Aquatic Invasive Species Network - a network of 30 academics, 12 universities, and six federal labs - mapping aquatic invaders across the country. A blend of math, computer models, and quantitative biological data will be used to study invasive species like the spiny water flea, which Lewis compares to disease outbreaks he has studied before.

"The mathematics is what's under the hood," Lewis said. "I'm sort of supplying the mathematical and quantitative modelling know-how, they're supplying the data and policy issues."

One of 180 non-native species found in the Great Lakes, the spiny water flea is a voracious centimetre-long predator with a long, spiky spine that makes it difficult for small fish to digest. An unwitting stowaway in the ballast water of Eurasian freighters in the early 1980s, the fast-spawning zooplankton has journeyed to more than 120 lakes in Ontario, mostly via recreational boats. Researchers worry it could out-compete native fish food in the province's 250,000 lakes.


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