MOBSYM – making maths matter (more)

A mathematical multi-disciplinary cornucopia

Problem solving over coffee* and cake. Mick McCarthy (left) and Chris Baker ponder a mathematical conundrum during MOBSYM.

Problem solving over coffee* and cake. Mick McCarthy (left) and Chris Baker ponder a mathematical conundrum during MOBSYM.

It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you like your maths strong and without sugar, then MOBSYM would be your drink of choice*. By strong I mean maths that solves challenging real world problems. And without sugar means we don’t need sweeteners to take it in. It’s maths all the way.

MOBSYM stands for the Mathematics of Biological Systems Management Symposium and it was staged at The University of Melbourne in early April. A joint venture** of CEED, PRISM, CEBRA and ACEMS, MOBSYM brought together 67 researchers from across Australia to discuss the latest mathematical methods and important applications in public health, conservation and biosecurity. Demonstrating the critical importance of maths across all walks of life, participants came from a wide range of backgrounds – over 20 institutions took part – setting the scene for many challenging interdisciplinary discussions.

As is often case in such situations, it quickly became apparent that many researchers were facing similar problems including how to effectively communicate results and deal with insufficient or biased data. Break-out sessions of 5-15 people allowed for more technical and in-depth cross-disciplinary discussion about these challenges (as well as helping delegate forge new connections).

Having researchers from such different backgrounds had one very interesting consequence for me. It made it much easier to concentrate on each presentation, as everything felt fresh – even though the research all had clear parallels and similar themes. And that wasn’t just my impression. Here’s some feedback I collected about the gathering (and you can hear what people said first hand in this video):

“Everyone I spoke to thoroughly enjoyed themselves; it was a great opportunity to get interdisciplinary conversations and connections going,” Professor Jodie McVernon (Director, PRISM). “It was great to have two days to sit back and focus on bigger issues, more general topics, meet some great people, and discover interesting ideas, papers, projects, problems, methods,” Dr Robert Moss (PRISM).

“The conference was fantastic, it’s been really interesting to get a broad range of people, and also from a range of applications,” Professor Michael McCarthy (Deputy Director, CEED).

Three themes that particularly stood out for me (and possibly reflecting my CEED pedigree) were decision-making under uncertainty and value of information; interpretation and presentation of results to impact policy; and economic discounting and valuation. On this last theme, I’m working with Matthew Holden and Kerrie Wilson (both from CEED) to see if we can develop a project on the role of economic discounting in biology.

Our hope is that we will bring together participants from each of the centres involved in MOBSYM, along with academics from The Pennsylvania State University and Cornell University.

Break-out sessions of 5-15 people allowed for more technical and in-depth crossdisciplinary discussions throughout the symposium.

Break-out sessions of 5-15 people allowed for more technical and in-depth crossdisciplinary discussions throughout the symposium.

More info: Chris Baker c.baker7@uq.edu.au

*Truth be said, most mathematicians prefer coffee. Indeed, there’s a classic joke that goes: ‘A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems’.

**MOBSYM was a joint venture by the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED), the Centre of Research Excellence for Policy Relevant Infectious Disease Simulation Modelling and Management (PRISM), the Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity Risk Analysis (CEBRA) and the Australian Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Frontiers (ACEMS).

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