Biologist explains nature’s “mess” using mathematics – 05/25/2023 – Fundamental Science
Was mathematics discovered or invented? Some say it’s everywhere—in music, the visual arts, nature—while others argue that it’s a set of concepts created by our brains. Biologist Karen Abbott, who uses mathematics to explain ecological patterns of different species, is a supporter of this second current. “I don’t believe that mathematics is present in the natural world, but we can use it to answer questions about nature.” Whether mathematics is a language of the universe or a human theory, since 3500 BC its tools have been used to explain the “messy and confused” real world. “It gets easier,” she says.
It might even be easy for a PhD in mathematical biology, a professor at Western Cave University, in the USA. But it is complex for those who do not have such an interdisciplinary thinking. Abbott works on the theoretical side of population and community ecology, and employs models of species interactions for why they occur where they do and what causes their affluence to vary over time. “I investigate the theoretical basis of large-scale patterns: how species and organisms interact with each other and the impacts of this on the ecosystem,” she explains.
Population ecology is a subfield that studies animals and plants and seeks to understand what shapes these populations – why they are abundant or rare in certain locations. Community ecology goes one step further, looking into the interactions of these different species to understand what shapes biodiversity in certain areas. “Why are some species common in some places and not in others, and how do other species interfere in this scenario?”, she says.
But despite understanding so much about animals and plants, Abbott’s interest is more in the numbers. “More than the species themselves, my curiosity lies in the standards we apply to them. That is: in the rules that determine where they can live and be abundant”, he says. Maybe that explains why the professor doesn’t lose sleep over a complex issue in ecology: the human impact on the environment. “Many ecologists consider humanity in ecological interactions. I prefer to avoid it,” she observes.
For example: Abbott studies pollinating animals, such as bees, and it is undeniable that this group has a smaller population today than a hundred years ago due to human action. But as the scientist is limited to analyzing the state of things in the present, this anthropic impact can be disregarded as long as it is relatively constant in the time and space analyzed in the models.
Abbot also uses mathematical tools to develop new biological understandings. In her studies, she identifies natural phenomena that are not fully explained by existing ecological theory and investigates how new models can improve our understanding of these phenomena. “We can look at nature and detect its rules and patterns. But there’s always a degree of randomness that the rules can’t predict. That’s where our theoretical understanding of systems ecology fails.” That is, science knows that randomness exists, but still cannot effectively predict it. “What I do is try to find small updates to our understanding of the world,” she explains.
Honored in 2022 with the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Guidance, Abbott is beloved by students at Western Cave University. Her interdisciplinary research attracts researchers from different backgrounds, who she treats as equals, not as if addressing pupils. “It makes them think and work at a high level,” she says.
Keeping students at a high level is a personal mission for the biologist. She bets that creative solutions to the world’s problems will come from interdisciplinary thinking, including social sciences and humanities, and this new generation is more prepared for this challenge than the previous ones. “We, as educators and society, are doing a really good job of helping young people to think outside the box. They don’t see themselves limited to areas, like the last generations,” she says.
On a visit to Brazil to teach future scientists in the Quantitative Ecology Training course offered by the Serrapilheira Institute, Abbott was relieved to confirm that the Brazilian scientific community is committed to defending the Amazon. “It’s a unique place in the world. Having scientists from Latin America investing in understanding this forest as much as possible is essential. How to preserve it and, at the same time, generate sustainable development is yet another problem that we can turn into mathematics, find solutions and bring knowledge back to the real world”, he concludes.
Pedro Lira is a journalist at the Serrapilheira Institute.
The blog Ciência Fundamental is edited by Serrapilheira, a private, non-profit institute that promotes science in Brazil. Sign up for the Serrapilheira newsletter to keep up with news from the institute and the blog.
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