Professor connects math, biology to order behaviour

Paul Mayne//Western News

Applied Mathematics professor Geoff Wild uses mathematical models to understand the logic that underlies animal behavior and evolutionary ecology. Using these models, he develops gene-based accounting systems that help make sense of less-than-intuitive animal behaviours.

Nature is a cutthroat business, where animals, even humans, are in a relentless competition for resources like food, mates or shelter. And whether we suffer or prosper, it all comes down to our genes, said Applied Mathematics professor Geoff Wild.

Wild’s research focuses on what he describes as ‘gene currency’ – what genes provide us, why they do what they do, what they offer our allies or opponents. In doing so, he uses mathematical models to better understand the logic that underlies gene-driven behavioural and evolutionary ecology, and perhaps give fellow researchers a window into the future.

For his work, Wild was recently presented with the 2014 Early Career Award in Applied Mathematics from both the Canadian Applied and Industrial Mathematics Society and Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences.

“I use modeling the same way an experimenter would use an experiment,” he said. “As you can design an experiment to answer a specific question, you can design a model to answer a particular question as well. You can use numbers to try and make some headway into important questions biologists are interested in.”

Wild’s models are the same types physicists use to describe a particle moving around in space. “We don’t have a projectile moving through space,” Wild said, “but we have an abstract notion of space – and that is your space of behavior. One often talks about a spectrum of behaviour – you can be nasty or really nice or all sorts of in between.”

Based on these modeled predictions, biologists can test a particular species, or perhaps look across a whole evolutionary tree. With an endangered species dependent on social interactions, for example, scientists could get a better understanding of these interactions and, perhaps, be able to predict when things are going – or about to go – wrong.

“You can connect math and biology in so many different ways. Biology is so diverse and the applications of math come in all sorts of places,” Wild said. “You can use mathematics to uncover some tidy way to think about things. Mathematics helps us organize our thinking in order to make sense of what seems senseless.”

Wild has spent his greatest efforts on the emergence of complex societies, especially relatively complex animal societies and the transition of a lone wolf to pack mentality.