Discovering Answers to Nature’s Patterns
G. Bard Ermentrout, Distinguished University Professor of Computational Biology and Professor, Department of Mathematics
Whether he is researching the synchronization of patterns on seashells, investigating why viruses inflame the immune system, or exploring the mechanics of how toys move, G. Bard Ermentrout is enthralled by how things change with time through dynamical systems. Ermentrout is Distinguished University Professor of Computational Biology and a professor in the Department of Mathematics. After teaching for more than 30 years at Pitt, Ermentrout’s fascination with mathematical biology continues to grow exponentially.
“Mathematical biology is a young, emerging, interdisciplinary field. The study of mathematical biology is absolutely phenomenal and awesome because we can get to the root cause of many phenomena in nature just by analyzing patterns in space and time,” says Ermentrout. “No matter what it is, from fingerprints to ant trails, we are always looking for a mechanistic explanation.”
Ermentrout’s interest in mathematical biology came to light as an undergraduate pre-med math major. After finding and reading “Towards a Theoretical Biology,” an article in the journal Nature, his interest shifted to math biology, and he consequently gave up his dream of going to medical school. Instead, he went on to study at the University of Chicago and wrote his dissertation on mescaline hallucinations. His research interests focus on the application of nonlinear dynamics to biological problems as well as studying mathematical neuroscience in an effort to understand the patterns of activity in networks of neurons. In his research laboratory, he models recurrent activity, waves, and oscillations in a variety of neural systems.
Ermentrout has written more than 200 papers, on every organ in the body except for the kidneys. He was a 2015 recipient of the Mathematical Neuroscience Prize, an award that recognizes researchers worldwide who have significantly advanced the understanding of the neural mechanisms of perception, behavior, and thought through the application of mathematical analysis and theoretical modeling. He coauthored the book Mathematical Foundations of Neuroscience (Springer, 2010) and wrote XPPAUT, a software platform for the simulation and analysis of nonlinear dynamical systems, now available for iPhone and iPad. In 2008, Ermentrout received the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award, and in 2012, he was named a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics.
Ermentrout encourages students to take advantage of all research opportunities at Pitt, including getting involved in the First Experiences in Research program offered through the Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity. “The University of Pittsburgh is such a big place. There are incredible opportunities here to do research, and the door is open to all undergraduates,” says Ermentrout. “My advice to students is to take as much math as possible, get their hands dirty in doing research, and above all find a mentor. I had a phenomenal undergraduate advisor who encouraged my interest in research and number theory.”
Ermentrout takes his enthusiasm and love for mathematical biology into the classroom. “I like to bring in popular culture, including the modeling of zombies, to keep students engaged and interested,” he says. In fact, Ermentrout and his son, Kyle, coauthored a chapter in the book Mathematical Modelling of Zombies (University of Ottawa Press, 2014), which examines how mathematics can predict the unpredictable. Outside his laboratory, Ermentrout is an avid cook and gardener. For more information on Ermentrout and his research, visit mathematics.pitt.edu.