Illinois State is emerging as a national force in the study of biomathematics.
The graduate program’s scholarly journal, Letters in Biomathematics, is making international headway, and Illinois State has been chosen as the home for the largest biomathematics conference in the nation this fall. To top it all off, the University is spearheading a quickly growing consortium of universities dedicated to advancing the science.
At the center of this growing success is Professor of Mathematics Olcay Akman, who developed the idea for the consortium named Intercollegiate Biomathematics Alliance (IBA) last year. “Biomathematics is a young science, which means there are not many faculty members dedicated to the field, even at large universities,” said Akman. Illinois State is one of the few places that offers a graduate program in biomathematics.
Few faculty members generally translates into small budgets for biomathematicians in academia. Akman decided that working together, universities can provide more opportunities for students, and for one another. “The idea behind this consortium is to share academic, intellectual, infrastructural, and physical resources,” he said.
Biomathematics is the intersection of mathematics, computer science, and natural science. Scholars might work to compute the rate of infection of a disease, or help farmers estimate the amount of pesticide needed for crops. The field cuts a wide swath across the sciences, with many avenues of research to pursue. The IBA enables students to reach out to experts in their area of interest across university lines.
“Let’s say I come to Illinois State, and have an interest in ecological biomath,” said Akman, whose research centers on the spread of infectious diseases. “IBA lets the graduate students perform research jointly with myself and a faculty member from another university who may have expertise in that area. IBA allows students to do more academic research than one institution can provide.”
For years, Akman has collaborated with professors from other universities to present the Biomathematics and Ecology, Education and Research Conference—which they lovingly call BEER. It was the proceedings from the 2011 BEER Conference that evolved into Letters in Biomathematics, which international scientific publishers Taylor & Francis recently acquired the rights to publish, though Akman remains editor-and-chief.
It was to his BEER colleagues that Akman originally turned with his idea for IBA. In November 2014, Akman, Tim Comar of Benedictine University and Dan Hrozenik of Chicago State University formed the foundation for the consortium. Working with the deans of several universities, the three men saw the IBA grow quickly in size and prominence.
To date, there are seven institutional members of IBA providing financial support and faculty fellows. “They provide the rich and diverse expertise beyond the boundaries of their home institutions, creating this unique and vibrant foundation of the intellectual enterprise,” said Akman. The seven are Appalachian State University, Benedictine University, Chicago State University, Illinois State University, Marymount University, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and University of Portland. Many biomathematicians from more universities are offering academic and intellectual insights.
“What is exciting is that you can come to Illinois State and work with someone from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It opens doors to our students and provides research assistance to biomathematics scholars across the nation,” said Akman.
The Alliance also provides research and professional development opportunities for the biomathematics community at large via colloquia, workshops, retreats, and teleconferences. “Thanks to the funding from IBA, mathematics instructors from all over the U.S. can stream or record lectures to share with other institutions,” said Akman, who pointed to a recent visit to Illinois State from Unal Ufuktepe from the Izmir University of Economy. “Member institutions can have students in North Carolina, learning from a professor from Turkey, who is giving a guest lecture at Illinois State.”
IBA members also came together to benefit from a supercomputer, which is housed at Illinois State. “Biomath requires complex computing, so I put in for a grant to the Shodor Foundation for a six-node Beowulf style portable computational cluster. It supports shared memory parallelism and distributed memory parallelism…which means it runs really fast,” said Akman with a smile.
As Illinois State’s impact in the field of biomathematics grows, Akman shows no signs of slowing. Working with Professor of Biology Diane Byers, he has started a second journal – one dedicated to undergraduate research. “This is the first undergraduate journal dedicated to biomathematics in the world,” said Akman. “It is called SPORA, which in Latin means seed, sown, or growing.”
Akman said efforts like the IBA, BEER, and SPORA are more than a way to capture national acclaim in the field. It is also one possible approach to the reality of shrinking higher education budgets. “There is a need for working together across higher education—especially in fields like biomathematics—if we are to thrive, or survive,” he said.