Synergy between biology and mathematics culminates in launch of new SARChl Chair

Posted on November 04, 2013

The official launch of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Mathematical Models and Methods in Bioengineering and Biosciences (M3 B2) on 25 October 2013 was the culminating point of a strategic initiative of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in 2007 to work closely with the current cluster of Biological Sciences at the University. Prof Jean MS Lubuma, a renowned mathematician, the former Head of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, was appointed to lead this prestigious Research Chair.

Prof Carlos Castillo-Chavez from the Arizona State University, whose research programme is also focused on the interface of the mathematical and natural and social sciences delivered the keynote address at the launch. To complement the launch, a Biosciences and Bioengineering mini-conference was held on 28 October 2013 where renowned speakers such as Prof Michael S Pepper from the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Department of Immunology of the University of Pretoria and Prof Carlos Castillo-Chavez delivered topical addresses.

At the launch, the Vice-Principal for Research and Postgraduate Studies, Prof Stephanie Burton and Prof Lubuma, emphasised that the Chair will contribute to the implementation of UP strategic plan and vision for 2025 of being a leading research-intensive university.

“This is a golden opportunity for the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, as a base department, to become research-intensive by 2016, as expected in the University strategic plan. The vision for the Chair is indeed to become an international centre of excellence in mathematical biology, which will emphasise aspects, such as extensive international and local collaborations, including multidisciplinary research with some of the University’s Institutional and Faculty Research Themes as well as focussing on research areas of our strengths,” Prof Lubuma said.

According to Prof Lubuma, the research focus of this Chair in M3 B2 lies at the intersection of mathematical modelling of biological processes and a spectrum of mathematical specialisations, broadly located within analysis. The biological processes to be considered within the Chair are highly relevant to the needs of the country. These include mathematical epidemiology, specifically the identification of adequate scientific -, engineering - or medical responses to new diseases and old forms of new diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis, cancer, HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases that pose a massive threat to development in South Africa and beyond.

Some of the research milestones in this field at the University include two successful workshops on mathematical epidemiology in 2008 and 2010, fruitful collaborations with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the French International Centre of Agricultural Research for Development as well as the Biomath Forum launched in 2011 as an interdisciplinary research gathering for the exchange of ideas between mathematicians and biologists at the University. More recently the Biomath Coffee was established as an informal weekly meeting.

Another interesting initiative in this Chair is the ”Under-Twenty Mathematicians” (UTM) programme. This programme is aimed at identifying, recruiting and grooming young South African citizens to become mathematicians, a category that dominates the national scarce skills list.

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