Do the Math

A new UT campus center will merge math with biology

You most likely know Lou Gross as the mustached man behind the sound board at Laurel Theater, where he has been volunteering for the better part of three decades. He founded and for years hosted Live at the Laurel on WUOT, and his recordings get airplay on radio stations all over the South that play bluegrass and traditional music. He has assembled a musical archive likely to find a home in the Smithsonian some day, or perhaps the Museum of Appalachia.

Recording music is but a hobby for Gross, a math professor at the University of Tennessee, but next week he will hold a two-night workshop on engineering and recording live music, Sept. 16 and 17 at 6:30 at Laurel Theater. If you attend, congratulate him on his new job. Last week the university was awarded a $16 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a mathematical biology center on campus, and Gross will be its director. With the new responsibility, he will relinquish teaching duties, but not his time at the Laurel.

The new center is explicitly multidisciplinary, so Gross and other staffers will be reaching across department and discipline boundaries to bring mathematicians to biologists and biologists to mathematicians. The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis will bring more than two dozen jobs to Knoxville. Gross and four other professors will launch the center, but six new faculty positions will be created, plus nine staff positions. Up to a dozen postdoctoral fellowships will be awarded, and the center will sponsor four visiting faculty per year. All that is good news for the local economy.

Ultimately the center will be housed in Claxton on the hill, but while they wait for the new engineering building to be completed and the current Claxton occupants to move, NIMBioS will occupy the fourth floor of the research building on White Avenue next to the Law School. The $16 million comes over five years, at which time a "non-competitive renewal" occurs, according to NSF director Sam Scheiner. If all goes well, renewal will be routine. Scheiner said Tennessee was chosen for its compelling vision, clear management structure, and strong support from the university. Tennessee also offered partnerships with ORNL and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It is easy to see the grant as Knoxville's gain, but why is a mathematical biology center worth millions to the feds?

With millions of acres to manage, the federal government employs thousands of biologists who face complicated challenges. When Congress approved $12 billion to repair damage to the Everglades inflicted by sugar cane production and land development, agencies involved had to maximize their effort. What is good for herons might not be good for sparrows, and snails might need more help than the birds. Human needs add further conflicts and constraints. Mathematical biologists, including Gross, helped decide how to allocate money and effort.

Private industry benefits as well. The North Carolina hog industry spends about $300,000 per year to guard against transmission of diseases between feral hogs in the mountains and domestic pigs, and they hired mathematical biologists to adapt epidemiological models to the problem. Wildlife biologists tend not to cross paths with epidemiologists or mathematicians, but Gross and his peers are working to change that.

In the Smokies, Park officials will work with NIMBioS to improve invasive-species control strategies, wildfire management, and biodiversity surveys. Successes can be replicated throughout the National Park system, and managers of other public and private lands and waters can benefit as well, whether they are trying to protect endangered species, optimize harvests, or both. The more complicated their goals, the more help mathematicians can provide. Even if they make federal spending just 1 percent smarter, the center will pay for itself a thousand times over. m