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ASU fuses mathematics with social sciences

October 31, 2008
There’s a new kind of math being taught at ASU, and it goes something like this: Take one globalized world, multiply by billions of people and add an influenza virus. Factor in extreme poverty and the fact that there are more people than vaccines. Using massive demographic, climate and health data sets, determine a vaccination distribution plan to prevent a deadly epidemic in rural Mexico. Hint: you can’t actually test it to see if you got it right. This year, two new degrees – a doctorate and a bachelor of science in Applied Mathematics for the Life and Social Sciences – join an array of crosscutting programs administered by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Carlos Castillo-Chavez, ASU Regents’ Professor and Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of mathematical biology, joined the school this summer to direct the new programs. He will share his time with his newly founded Mathematics, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. Home to several programs under his direction, including the acclaimed Mathematical and Theoretical Biology Institute, the center actively recruits students from disadvantaged backgrounds and mentors them in mathematical sciences for the purpose of improving human lives. “We face enormous demographic, economic, environmental, health and social challenges,” says Castillo-Chavez. “Our goal is to produce a new generation of scientists with an understanding of global issues and vigorous training in quantitative theory and methods. Our graduates come from a wide range of backgrounds and will be able to quickly adapt to the changing employment demands we are already seeing in areas such as homeland security, sustainability and conservation biology, urban system dynamics, public health, disease evolution and addiction, infrastructure and technological research.”While best known for its anthropology programs, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change is expanding its expertise in the study of complex adaptive systems. “The school is a natural home for mathematicians who want to use their skills on social and environmental problems,” says Sander van der Leeuw, the school’s director. “We are extremely thrilled that professor Castillo-Chavez and his students have come on board. Our social scientists have a long history of working closely with computational scientists and are eager to advance the application of quantitative tools to social science data.” “What’s different about applied mathematics in social science is that there is more focus on how to apply various tools and methods to social systems, besides learning the technical aspects of methods. The trick is figuring out which tools and methods are best for which type of problems, and how to use them to produce useful results,” says Marco Janssen, assistant professor in the school and associate director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity. “Whether you are searching for viable strategies to convert a city to sustainable energy or to preserve an endangered rainforest in Indonesia, you better understand cultural and social processes. To develop rigorous models, you have to include knowledge from many disciplines.”

The four mathematicians in the school’s faculty know of no other programs that train mathematicians using social science data in an ecological context the way ASU is doing it.

“We just started the Ph.D. program this fall and we have already exceeded our five year enrollment projections. As soon as it was approved, we were able to enroll 27 highly qualified students, and we are constantly getting inquiries from around the world,” says Bate Agbor-Baiyee, academic success specialist for applied mathematics in the life and social sciences.

Not surprisingly, it turns out there is a huge global demand for problem solvers. According to Janssen, the job opportunities for graduates cover just about every field you can think of: health, business, industry, government, environment, entertainment, sports and of course, education.

“In the age of computers and Internet, there are massive amounts of data being collected that require strong computational skills to analyze,” says Janssen. “But we are still learning how to use that data in meaningful ways. Whenever you are dealing with people, things get complicated very quickly,” says Janssen. “This is not like applied mathematics in engineering where you have to figure out the best circuit for a chip. Maybe you are trying to figure out the best circuit for a new light rail system. Unlike the chip, you can’t test it over and over to refine it until it’s perfect. You have to be good at asking questions – a lot of questions – because getting it wrong has serious consequences.”

In this emerging field, research is driven by questions at the interface of the life and social sciences – and a process of discovery that relies on a continuous, adaptive ‘trialogue’ between models, theory and data, adds Castillo-Chavez.

“Students learn a way of thinking and approaching problems, and then get to apply it to whatever they are passionate about,” says John “Marty” Anderies, associate professor with appointments in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Sustainability. “We’ll never fully understand what motivates people’s behavior. But we can observe what they actually do in a given set of circumstances, develop models of their decision-making behavior and map that onto data and models of the environment. We can then look across history and time and space to see how people’s decisions and the environment interact.”