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Published: Saturday, 6/29/2002

Institute merges math and biology


The hands shake with metronomic regularity, four to eight times every second.

To Dr. David Terman, Parkinson's disease and the signature tremor that distinguishes it are more than medical issues, they are math problems. The Ohio State University mathematician creates equations for the disease. He is working to expose the disruptive patterns of neuronal chattering in a brain rocked by a shortage of a critical chemical, the neurotransmitter dopamine.

To anyone who thought biology was the one science safe from the rigors and intellectual acrobatics of mathematics, Dr. Avner Friedman says think again. Because work such as Dr. Terman's - this frontier where math and biology meld - is where science is heading.

Dr. Friedman is the director of Ohio State University's new Mathematical Biosciences Institute, which was publicly introduced Thursday.

It is the nation's first, and owes its creation to a $10 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Dr. Friedman, who this week resigned from the University of Minnesota where he directed an Institute for Mathematics and its Applications, came to OSU a year ago with a vision of officially merging mathematics, statistics, and biology.

As technology has improved biology's ability to derive mountains of data about things like the proteins produced in a given cell, the role of mathematics has grown.

“It's an overwhelming amount of information. But if you want to draw some knowledge from it,'' Dr. Friedman said, it requires the abilities of math and statistics.

As science comes to terms with the complexity of biological systems, the role of math can only increase.

“There are 100 trillion cells in a human body. One hundred trillion is bigger than the national deficit,'' Dr. Friedman said. “And each cell is more complicated than all the automobile companies in the world combined. And they communicate - so you can imagine how complicated this is.''

The center will be located in Cockins Hall when it opens Sept. 1. By its second year, it will support 12 to 15 post-doctoral researchers, in addition to scientists from all over the world who wish to attend the institute to pursue research in the emerging area.

In a way, researchers in this area will write a whole new language.

“In physics, there are well-established equations for whatever people are trying to understand. A mathematician can find a way to analyze those. They can make a contribution. In biology, those equations don't exist. The language needs to be developed,'' said Dr. Terman.

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