Northwestern, UChicago to receive $50 million to study life sciences using mathematics

New institute will be an international hub focused on fundamental questions

Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have been awarded $50 million from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation to establish the National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology or NITMB, to be based in downtown Chicago. The institute will be the first of its kind in the U.S.

Mathematics has the potential to distill biology’s complexity and predict future phenomena; the center seeks to develop and use math to investigate some of the most important fundamental questions in the life sciences.

Northwestern leads the center, with the University of Chicago as key partner. Together, the two universities will create a nationwide collaborative research community that will generate new mathematical results and uncover the “rules of life” through theories, data-informed mathematical models, and computational and statistical tools. The institute also will foster international collaborations at the interface of the mathematical and biological sciences, helping establish a vibrant worldwide research network for decades to come.

Foundational advances in biology and mathematics will lead to increased knowledge of human intelligence, advances in the biomedical sciences and better understanding of the effects of climate change upon plants and animals, among other benefits. And the institute offers bidirectional opportunities: Discoveries in biology also will motivate new developments in mathematics.

“There are many deep questions about human life and all branches of biology,” said Richard Carthew, the Owen L. Coon Professor of Molecular Biosciences in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and director of the new institute. “Our goal is to better understand the mathematical basis underlying both the capabilities and constraints of living systems. We hope to revolutionize the study of biology, much like physics has benefited from an alliance with mathematics. An ambitious goal, yes, and an exciting one.”

“The NITMB will achieve foundational advances at the intersection of mathematics and biology,” said Rebecca Willett, professor of statistics and computer science at the University of Chicago and deputy director of the NITMB. “These include tools for understanding when a group of organisms exhibit collective behavior that wouldn’t be seen in any individual, a theory of how masses of undifferentiated cells establish the geometric pattern that frames a fully developed organism, and a mathematical understanding of how living systems learn and adapt to new conditions with limited training. The Northwestern and UChicago teams will bring together leading experts in mathematics and biology and make the Chicagoland area the hub for convening scientists around the globe to work on these important problems.”

The institute’s work promises to have a lasting impact on the disciplines of life sciences and mathematics as well as society at large.

“We also have the opportunity to create new ways to teach and disseminate mathematical concepts to the general public,” said Stephanie Palmer, associate professor of physics and organismal biology and anatomy and member of the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics at UChicago, who is associate director of training for the NITMB. “By using the engaging ties to biological phenomena that we experience every day, we will help demystify math for everyone, from school-age children to adults."

Approximately 80 faculty — 40 from each university — will be involved in the institute’s work, including quantitative biologists (both experimental and theoretical), computer scientists, physicists and mathematicians.

“Our scientific programs will be specifically designed to foster a creative exchange between the distinct research cultures of mathematics and biology,” said Mary Silber, professor of statistics and the Committee on Computational and Applied Mathematics at UChicago, and associate co-director of scientific programs within NITMB. “A lot of intention will go into shaping these activities, which will productively engage mathematical and biological scientists from around the world.”

NITMB will be located in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, ensuring accessibility to Northwestern and UChicago researchers as well as collaborators from the U.S. and around the world.

Not just a research center, the NITMB will create curricula and support research opportunities for students from elementary through graduate school and beyond, while also hosting public lectures that communicate the wonder of the living world and how it is understood through the lens of theory. The institute’s significant K-12 educational outreach component will take advantage of existing local programs as well as develop new ones with the goal of improving equity and inclusion of those underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“This Institute will serve as a national resource to both catalyze the discovery of new mathematics required to describe biological systems and train the next generation of researchers at these interfaces,” said Margaret Gardel, the Horace B. Horton Professor of Physics and Molecular Engineering, member of the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics and director of the James Franck Institute at UChicago, who will be assisting Palmer with NITMB training initiatives.

For more information, visit the NITMB website.