The application of mathematics to biosciences has a long history, which, in the particular case of infectious diseases, goes back to Daniel Bernoulli in 1760. However, a heightened synergy between biology and mathematics has come about over the past few decades, contributing to the enrichment and expansion of both fields.
The awarding to the University of Pretoria of the SARChI Chair in Mathematical Models and Methods in Bio-engineering and Biosciences (M3B2) is the culminating point of the strategic initiative that the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics started in 2007 to work closely with the cluster of Biological Sciences. Since then milestones in research activities have included the following:
- two successful workshops on mathematical epidemiology in 2008 and 2010
- fruitful collaborations with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and CIRAD (a French research centre working with developing countries to tackle international agricultural and development issues)
- the Biomath Forum launched in 2011 as an interdisciplinary research gathering for the exchange of ideas between mathematicians and biologists at the University of Pretoria
- Biomath Coffee established in 2014 as an informal weekly meeting
- three successful joint workshops by UP and UNISA in 2014, 2015 and 2016
- the hosting by UP of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Biomath 2016 satellite conference in Pretoria 2016
- the Annual International Conferences on Mathematical Methods and Models in Biosciences in Skukuza, Kruger Park, South Africa, (2017), in Będlewo, Poland (2019) and in Pretoria, South Africa (2021)
- October Workshops on Research Trends in Mathematical Modeling and Analysis in Life Sciences, 2018 and 2019, in Pretoria, South Africa.
The research focus of the Chair in M3B2 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 covid-19, malaria, tuberculosis, cancer, HIV/AIDS and other communicable diseases that pose a massive threat to development in South Africa and beyond. The Chair also develops new mathematical and numerical methods for broadly understood population dynamics, ecology and other fields of interest in life sciences.
The Chair has been active in the implementation of UP’s strategic plan and vision for 2025 of being a leading research-intensive university and has contributed to the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics becoming a research intensive unit, 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 the following aspects:
• extensive international and local collaborations, including multidisciplinary research with some of the Institutional Research Themes and Faculty Research Themes of UP
• focusing on research areas of our strengths
• organising regular international workshops and conferences
• increasing the number of postdoctoral fellows and postgraduate students
Another interesting initiative within 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.