2012 Finalist: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science
Mathematical Biologist Tackles Environmental Issues
Dr. Mark Lewis is an internationally respected mathematical ecology scientist. He’s a renowned teacher, researcher and advocate for science.
The professor, cross appointed between the Departments of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, always figured he would follow in his father’s footsteps and be a scientist.
“It started at the dinner table,” he recalls. “We’d talk a lot about science. Then at university it came together. I got excited by doing science and found out I could do it.”
Dr. Lewis has become as a leader in the field of mathematical ecology and of the Canadian research community. But he may have taken a different scientific path had an undergrad biology professor not encouraged him to pursue math. Somewhat puzzled, the young student who had always loved biology followed the suggestion.
In 1987, he graduated from the University of Victoria with degrees in biology and combined mathematics and computer science. He went to grad school at Oxford, started his career in the U.S. and in 2001, came back to Canada, which, for him, meant becoming involved in the country’s environmental issues.
“I’m asking questions about the environment and human interactions with the environment, using quantitative tools and equations. It helps explain what’s going on when you have a complicated situation,” Dr. Lewis says. He does so by leading teams of scientists, research students and post-doctoral fellows examining several important and controversial ecological issues affecting Canada, global society and ecology — for example, controlling the spread of West Nile virus and the potentially devastating effects of sea lice among farmed salmon on wild salmon.
A recent collaboration with Alberta Environment finds Dr. Lewis applying his groundbreaking mathematical models on pollutants from the oil sands to determine the effects on fish populations.
“I work closely with my partners in government and other academics,” Dr. Lewis says. “I bring the modelling and analytical skills on the computer and all of the pencil-and-paper math stuff. And they bring the insight I don’t have.”
Like most people who work at the university, Dr. Lewis’s is a multi-faceted position. He is a respected teacher and trains many future researchers, which will extend his influence through time. He’s also an award-winning author whose publication record surpasses 150 papers, books and articles that span the fields of applied mathematics and biology. He is lead editor for the prestigious Journal of Mathematical Biology, one of the field’s most highly regarded publications.
Inspired by the Future
Dr. Lewis says he is motivated to work by the students he trains and his collaborators. He is excited by the future of what he describes as a “renaissance in the field of mathematical biology”.
“Computers are becoming more powerful and we can collect incredibly detailed data. Put a GPS collar on a wolf and we can monitor activity every five minutes,” he enthuses. “In addition, the areas of math and statistics are growing very quickly. Put that together and you start to answer very important questions you would never think of answering 10 years ago.”