Space and time. Most people wish they had more of
While David Hiebeler can't help in that regard - he's a mathematician,
not a magician - his research could be the next best thing. Using
computational and mathematical models, Hiebeler describes how certain
populations behave over time and under a variety of simulated
Working at the intersection of math, computation and biology, Hiebeler,
a mathematics professor at the University of Maine, uses his
research to help people - and industry - use space and time to their
Hiebeler likes to call it "the science fiction of biology."
"Space wars are being fought here on Earth, but not with soldiers or advanced technology," Hiebeler says. "Natural organisms fight for a
space to call their own as they live, reproduce and interact with other
To predict the outcome of these "space wars," Hiebeler and his students
create computer-based, mathematics-driven models with a
number of variables. For example, one simulation shows what would happen
if a plant in a forest with a patchy distribution of suitable
living conditions - sunlight, good soil - produced big, heavy seeds that
fall close to the parent plant or small, tufted seeds that float
on the breeze.
"The main question is how does the spatial distribution of a population
affect the dynamics and, ultimately, the outcome or success of a population," Hiebeler says. "The answer is what the landscape looks
On the computer screen, the distribution of black and white dots looks
like static on a television or spots on a Dalmatian. And at first
glance, it's hard to understand what, if any, connection this
"landscape" has to the pine trees, ferns and lady slippers that make up
Maine's forest ecosystem.
But when Hiebeler starts to describe the way climate change could affect
the distribution of plants over time - Banana trees in Maine?
Kudzu in the tundra? - the dots start to make sense. Though his work
deals primarily with theoretical models, it has practical
In May, Hiebeler received the National Science Foundation's most
prestigious honor for promising young scholar-researchers: the Faculty
Early Career Development (CAREER) grant. The $400,000 award, which
Hiebeler will receive over five years, recognizes faculty who
"most effectively integrate research and education within the context of
the mission of their organization," according to NSF.
This marks the first such award for a professor in the UMaine College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Hiebeler's research centers on mathematical population ecology and
epidemiology. Real-world applications for the research include
understanding more effective pesticide application in Maine blueberry
fields, studying how infectious diseases spread, and predicting and
perhaps combating the worldwide spread of malicious software, such as
viruses and worms, through computer networks.
"The importance of the work is that it may suggest new strategies for
monitoring populations for outbreaks of infectious diseases,
invasive species, or malicious software to enable earlier detection," he
To help incorporate undergraduate and graduate students into his
research, Hiebeler established the SPEED (Spatial Population
Ecological and Epidemiological Dynamics) Lab. One of those undergrads,
Isaac Michaud, plans to use Hiebeler's epidemiological models to
determine when, where and how much pesticide should be applied to combat
maggot flies, the chief pest in Maine's blueberry farms.
Michaud will collaborate with Frank Drummond, a professor of insect
ecology and insect pest management in UMaine's School of Biology
For Michaud, a UMaine senior who was valedictorian of his high school,
the collaboration has been invaluable.
"In most of the mathematics programs here and in the rest of the
country, you need a Ph.D. to even understand what's going on,"
Michaud says as he sits in the narrow, bright room that houses the SPEED
Lab. "To be able to contribute to this research as an
undergrad is an amazing experience. It makes me want to excel in my
It also has influenced his decision to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics.
"Doing research with David has pushed me a little bit further down that
path," Michaud says. "He makes you realize that mathematicians
are human beings - not every mathematician is Einstein."
Michaud's classmate and fellow SPEED Lab researcher Sarah Krause agrees.
"David makes you realize it's more attainable," she says.
Krause is a senior math and secondary education major, and she says her
classes with Hiebeler have taught her how to present
conceptual mathematics to students in a way that won't overwhelm them.
"I could see the potential for students to realize what they can do with
their math skills beyond just, ‘I can do calculus; what does that
mean to me?'" she says. "When they get these results, they'll be able to
see mathematics can be used in … a lot of ways in the real
In addition to his work with Drummond, Hiebeler plans to establish
similar collaboration with entomologists at Zhejiang University in
Hangzhou, China, to address planthoppers, a pest in rice fields in Asia.
An earlier $180,000 NSF award made it possible for Hiebeler to hire more
UMaine students and expand the lab's outreach to area high
school students. In the future, high school students will meet weekly on
campus to begin training with Hiebeler and his undergraduate
students. They will later become directly involved in SPEED Lab research
For Hiebeler, the benefit is threefold. Through his work with UMaine education majors, he plans to seed Maine high schools with teachers
who are familiar with his approach to mathematical biology. By working
directly with high school students, he hopes to cultivate an early
interest in mathematics. And if some of the SPEED Lab proteges decide to
come to UMaine to study, they'll be ready to hit the ground
In time, Hiebeler would like to set up an intensive summer program for
undergraduate researchers modeled on the Mathematical and
Theoretical Biology Institute at Arizona State University. In addition
to his work at UMaine, he has served as research adviser and
lecturer at the institute for the past three summers, and he recently
was appointed an adjunct faculty member in ASU's Mathematical,
Computational and Modeling Sciences Center.
Through all of his outreach, he wants to provide students at the
University of Maine with the same opportunities that enriched his own
"One research project opened the door to another research project,"
Hiebeler says. "It can only snowball. At least that's my hope."
by Kristen Andresen
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