Pacific Northwest Workshop in Mathematical Biology by: L.G. de Pillis, Department of Mathematics, HMC |
This year's Pacific Northwest Meeting in Mathematical Biology (PNWMMB'97), organized by David Wollkind and Ed Pate, was held on the campus of the University of Washington in Pullman (March 22--24). Meeting participants were graduate students and researchers in mathematics, biology, genetics, ecology, zoology, biochemistry, and various combinations thereof.
The broad areas addressed by the 21 speakers during the three-day conference included excitable systems and neurobiology, muscle mechanics, and ecological systems. An excellent mix of fascinating problems and solution approaches was presented. One came away with the sense that much progress has been made on several fronts in mathematical biology; and that there still remain many open and important questions that must be pursued.
A highlight of the meeting was the Sixteenth Annual T.G. Ostrom Lecture in which Nancy Kopell of Boston University spoke on ``Networks of Neurons as Dynamical Systems: Biophysics to Geometry''. In her talk, Kopell, a National Academy of Sciences member, described several case studies in which she emphasized some of the many challenges intrinsic to understanding synchronization and phase relationships in networks that produce rhythmic output.
Presentations by other meeting participants included a description of pancreatic beta-cell bursting, a model for understanding the role of surface diffusion in biology, a method for reducing the dynamics of a mutually inhibited coupled network of neurons to a one-dimensional map, models of muscle mechanics, an approach to detecting oscillations in differential equations solutions using saddle points as indicators, a comparison of Turing pattern theory with experimental data, and models for understanding the behavior and cohesiveness of locust swarms. Our research endeavors are evolving from attaining understanding about single biological elements to developing descriptive theories of collected elements in interconnected biological networks.
Saturday night a panel discussion was held, in which the current and future state of mathematical biology was addressed. The panel was made up of Leah Edelstein-Keshet (UBC), Ed Pate (WSU), Robert Miura (UBC) and Tom Daniel (U of W). A lively interchange between audience and panel members ensued, in which topics arose ranging from the question of what are the up and coming areas in mathematical biology to what an academic advisor's responsibilities are to students needing career guidance, to what background and training a good mathematical biologist should have -- should students be trained as mathematical biologists, per se, or should they be encouraged to focus their studies more in either mathematics alone, or biology alone? One answer to this last question was offered by Tom Daniel, who opined that a good mathematical biologist would be ``not so much a half-breed, but a cross-dresser''.
Whether the conference participants would be inclined to label themselves as half-breeds, cross-dressers, or something else altogether, there is no question that, amusing categorizations aside, many have already enriched the field with exciting, relevant and timely work. The conference atmosphere was congenial and relaxed, and much positive interaction took place. The organizers are to be congratulated for orchestrating a highly successful and enjoyable meeting.
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