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Frontiers of Space- David Hiebeler


Frontiers of Space
UMaine mathematician studies the spatial distribution of populations to better understand their ecology

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Space and time. Most people wish they had more of both.

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 environmental conditions.

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 advantage.

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 organisms."

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 like."

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 significance.

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 says.

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 and Ecology.

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 other classes."

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 world."

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 projects.

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 running.

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 academic experience.

"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
November-December, 2008

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