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Professor of Mathematics Olcay Akman

Research Spotlight: Center for Collaborative Studies in Mathematical Biology

Over the last decade, Illinois State University has become an internationally renowned center for biomathematics research. The University is home to the Intercollegiate Biomathematics Alliance (IBA) and two research journals, and has spawned one of the largest biomathematics research conferences in the world.

Professor of Mathematics Olcay Akman and Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences Steven Juliano laid the groundwork for these initiatives when they launched a master’s degree program in biomathematics in 2007. Since then, the program has expanded beyond campus and now operates under the umbrella of the Center for Collaborative Studies in Mathematical Biology.

Akman is the director of the center and executive director of the IBA. In the following Q&A, he talked about how the program has grown and where it is headed. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is biomathematics, and what kind of problems are biomathematicians examining in their research?

Biomathematics is a new scientific area that is in the interface of biology, ecology, mathematics, and computer science. Over the years, the problems that biologists study and the methods that they need to study, those became more complicated and required methods and techniques that a typical biology curriculum doesn’t train the biologist for. On the other hand, mathematicians were doing things that are applicable to mathematics, but not directly beneficial or useful to real-life problems.

So in the mid-1990s, early 2000s, the math and bio communities got together, and they created several white papers, which basically dealt with the future of mathematics and the future of biology, and they said that mathematics would be useful if it solved real-life problems that will benefit biology, medicine, and ecology. As a result, the field of biomathematics, or mathematical biology, came up.

“ISU is the headquarters and the hub of the Intercollegiate Biomath Alliance. And actually, the Intercollegiate Biomath Alliance is something we should truly be proud of because it’s a unique consortium.”—Olcay Akman

Biomathematicians work on mathematical models with mathematical techniques and tools, to solve problems that originate from real-life biology and ecology. For example, as a biomathematician, my research deals with using typical theoretical math tools, math equations, to model, let’s say, the spread of Ebola, or to model a pest infestation in a cornfield, or cancer tumor growth, or a cancer tumor’s reaction to different types of therapies. That, in a nutshell, is biomathematics.

How did the research programs develop in our biomath program?

Our biomath graduate program grew much faster than any other current programs that our department had. At some point, we had more students than we could handle. In about 2014, we came up with the idea of cooperating with the biomath faculty of other universities to have them help us with the research and advising of our graduate students, which in a way, was the inception of the Intercollegiate Biomathematics Alliance.

So we started that?

Yes, we started that. ISU is the headquarters and the hub of the Intercollegiate Biomath Alliance. And actually, the Intercollegiate Biomath Alliance is something we should truly be proud of because it’s a unique consortium. There are many other smaller colleges in our proximity, and some of them have faculty expertise in biomathematics, but they don’t have a biomath program or they don’t have any other biomath faculty to collaborate with, and we had biomath faculty and biomath students but too many students to handle. So it was a very natural marriage to recruit their help in directing or co-directing our graduate students’ theses. That way, our graduate students got up-to-date, high-end, cutting-edge biomath research problems, and the faculty in smaller institutions who don’t get a chance to collaborate on biomathematics with the faculty in their institutions got an actual outlet for their research.

That turned out to be so successful that other institutions showed an interest. Within two short years, the universities that wanted to be part of Intercollegiate Biomath Alliance grew from two to 12, and as of this year, we have 12 member institutions and very prestigious schools like Arizona State University and Harvey Mudd College. This consortium of institutions basically acts like one big family, one big institution, where students in any of these member institutions can take lessons from any other. This faculty expertise exchange is just one aspect of Intercollegiate Biomathematics Alliance. We offer community curriculum, and also we offer new faculty collaboration venues.

To become an IBA member, institutions pay membership dues, and then those dues are used for the welfare of the biomath community. We make those funds available to faculty and students to travel to biomath-related conferences, and to visit each other for research meetings, and also provide all IBA member faculty research and teaching platforms that they wouldn’t get otherwise.

For instance, as the headquarters, ISU has high-performance computing cluster servers that IBA owns. If you’re in a small institution where your research requires computing that exceeds the capabilities of your desktop computer, we basically offer you cloud computing, and our servers are housed in Julian Hall and monitored by us.

We also provide undergraduates research funds. Those are called BEAM (Biomathematics Education with Applications and Methods) funds. Any student and any faculty in any of the IBA institutions is eligible to get summer funding to do undergraduate research. As a part of our emphasis on undergraduate research, about four years ago, we organized the undergraduate research program called CURE (Cross-Institutional Undergraduate Research Experience).

CURE is the summer research program, right?

Yes, the summer program. That’s a highly selective program where we invite students and faculty from IBA member institutions to ISU, all-expenses paid, and we involve students in undergraduate research.

The beauty of this program is we get this large variety of faculty with a very broad range of expertise. Students choose who to work with, regardless of which institutions they are based at. So, I may be an ISU student who is interested in coral reef health and work with someone from the University of Portland. And a student from Wisconsin may work with me.

During this workshop, we teach students all aspects of the research process from the inception of a problem, collaboration, development of the problem, development of the research, writing the code, technical and scientific writing, presentations, and dissemination techniques. Students come here as a blank canvas, and when they are done, they know the steps and aspects of the research in biomathematics. They go back to their homes and keep working with their individual selected faculty members.

We invite them back in October to the B.E.E.R. conference (International Symposium on Biomathematics and Ecology Education and Research) and have them present their results. Basically, you come to CURE as a blank slate, and then once you’re done, you present your work in an internationally recognized conference.

The B.E.E.R. conference started with 10 speakers and 30 attendees in one room in the Science Laboratory Building. That was 2008. By 2014 the B.E.E.R. conference was the second largest biomath conference in the world. We had over 100 speakers and close to 200 attendees.

The B.E.E.R. conference travels. This year it’s going to be hosted by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, which is an IBA member, and next year it’s going to be in Virginia, hosted by the University of Richmond, and then the following year it’s going to be hosted in England. And the following year, it will come back to Normal because it’s going to be the 15th anniversary.

Also, we started Letters in Biomathematics, a research journal that publishes high-end faculty research, and it’s published by a scientific publisher, Taylor & Francis in England. I am the chief editor. We also have another journal, called Spora, which is the sister journal to Letters in Biomathematics. And it publishes students’ research. Spora is an open-access journal, and it’s housed at ISU. It’s the only student journal dedicated to biomathematics in the world.

“As of today, we are the only math-bio master’s program in Illinois, and we are a very highly rated program. Our students have very successful research records both in academia and in industry.”—Olcay Akman

How does the Center for Collaborative Studies in Mathematical Biology fit into this?

With the support of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (RSP), we started the Center for Collaborative Studies in Mathematical Biology in 2017. We are the research center that oversees all of these activities, and as the center, we report to the associate vice president for Research and Graduate Studies.

A part of our funding to support the B.E.E.R. conference comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF). We very consistently got funding from NSF, but the majority of our funding comes from the membership dues. Then with the B.E.E.R. conference funding and the membership funding, we provide all the research grants as well as travel grants to go to the conferences and as well as the computing support that we give to our research partners.

How long is the master’s program?

The master’s is two years. For the master’s program, we accept math or biology students or statistics students, and the math-bio graduate program basically prepares our students for using math techniques for biology problems. They take classes from the School of Biological Sciences, and math, and statistics, and computer science. As of today, we are the only math-bio master’s program in Illinois, and we are a very highly rated program. Our students have very successful research records both in academia and in industry.

Is there an undergraduate biomath program?

There isn’t, but we are working on creating a five-year program in biomathematics. It is in the last steps of the administrative approvals.

For more information about the Center for Collaborative Studies in Mathematical Biology and its affiliated programs, visit About.IllinoisState.edu/IBA. Follow IBA on Twitter at @IBAtweets.

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