Combining biology and math, Louis Gross tackles the big problems

Louis Gross is the founder and director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS), a research center that focuses on biological problems that are too complex to solve without the assistance of mathematics and computer modeling. (Photo: Gregory Scott Jones)

At first glance, mathematics and biology might seem strange bedfellows.  But looks can be deceiving.

In today's shrinking world, biological phenomena can spread the width of the globe and encompass factors at a range of scales and outside of the conventional life sciences. In short, they pose big questions, such as how best to understand and control diseases like dengue fever and malaria?

Ecologists like Louis Gross have turned to mathematics and computer modeling for answers. Gross is the founder and director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS, pronounced Nim-bus), a NSF-funded research center that focuses on biological problems that are too complex to solve without the assistance of mathematics and computer modeling. When he's not overseeing NIMBioS, Gross is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee.

Gross's first hint of the possibilities in the marriage of mathematics and biology came as an undergrad at Drexel University. "I didn't consider the connection to math until my junior year at Drexel when I took a course from Charles Mode in which we went through a draft of his book on Stochastic Processes in Demography," said Gross. Mode's book would later appear in a major series on Biomathematics edited by Simon Levin, Gross's dissertation advisor at Cornell. His interest continued throughout his Ph.D., which he received in Applied Mathematics from Cornell.

NIMBioS's purpose, Gross explains, is "to open up new avenues in investigation to produce translational and transformative research," said Gross.

At the heart of NIMBioS is collaboration. By bringing together people from around the world with expertise in seemingly very different disciplines, Gross and his colleagues hope to answer the natural world's most perplexing processes, such as the dynamics and evolution of social complexity. Essentially, NIMBioS has several components, each with their own unique mission, though the boundaries are malleable. After all, that's sort of Gross's philosophy on life, and, well, science.

One of the most important components is the postdocs. Gross repeatedly stresses the importance of mentoring, and his postdocs have plenty of responsibility. They come as independent researchers from all over world with the intention that NIMBioS will allow them to address a particular problem. In return, NIMBioS provides mentors that help them with their work and career planning. Take Calistus Ngonghala for instance. He arrived at NIMBioS all the way from Cameroon via West Virginia University. Here he can pursue his important research, the role of mosquito demography in malaria transmission as well as the relationship between per capita income and infectious disease rates, surrounded by collaborators and more seasoned experts.

There are also working groups, collaborative gatherings of experts from around the physical and scientific globes intent on tackling seemingly impossible problems. They publish papers, present at symposia, and develop courses, all while doing what they do best: research.

These are what Gross refers to as the "dream teams" of mathematical biology. Typically international, there are usually between 12 and 15 researchers in each group. One example is a group made up of evolutionary biologists and statisticians, among others, using diverse methods such as mathematical decision theory and game theory to understand how play behavior in animals is being affected. Some taxa have increased, some have decreased, and the group wants to know why.

"We don't decide what goes on here," said Gross, "we help people." Lots of the people in these groups have never met before, he adds, and therein lies the beauty.

NIMBioS also puts plenty of pride in its tutorials, designed to foster any and all skills applicable to biology. Take "Computational Biology Curriculum Development," for example, which focused on relaying computational biology and other fields of cyber-learning in the teaching of undergraduate biology.

Other components include sabbatical fellowships and education and outreach.  When it comes to the latter, NIMBioS's efforts stretch from kindergarten to grad school. From the "biology in a box" teaching tool designed for hands-on experimentation in K-12 students, to the undergrad research conference that brings in between 100-200 participants each year, NIMBioS, and by extension Gross, are helping to light a spark in tomorrow's potential researchers.

But there is more to Lou Gross than just NIMBioS. When he is not playing mentor, grant writer, or administrator he has plenty of research interests of his own. For instance, he has studied vaccination scheduling for rabies by pinpointing where to drop vaccines for raccoons from airplanes and how to do it cost-effectively and developed a multimodel approach to calculate the effect of water level differences on numerous species in the south Florida everglades.

Gross also serves as the director of The Institute for Environmental Modeling, as the editor of the Encyclopedia of Theoretical Ecology, as co-author of Vision and Change, an attempt to rethink undergrad life science from an outcomes perspective rather than memorization, and as a sound engineer at the Laurel Theatre for the last 30 years, as time permits. Needless to say, he's a busy man.

Originally from Philadelphia, Gross credits his parents with cultivating his curious mind from a very young age. In addition, a steady stream of amateur naturalists, scout leaders, teachers, and professors brought the wider world of nature to the attention of little Lou, despite being tucked away in Philly's urban jungle.

At the end of the day, Gross's contribution to the emerging symbiosis between mathematics and the life sciences, and the influence he has had on his colleagues and students, is very difficult to calculate, and even more difficult to overstate. Perhaps he could model it, if he only had time.