Turning 20, a Flexible IMA Looks Forward and Outward

January 30, 2003

Now in its 20th year, the Institute for Mathematics and Its Applications at the University of Minnesota has introduced a program called New Directions (Opportunities will be available pending funding; updates and further information can be found at http://www.ima.umn.edu/new-directions/) and is preparing to celebrate its anniversary with a major conference ("The IMA at 20: Mathematics and its Impact," scheduled for June 6 and 7, at the IMA).

Unlike the new German mathematics research center described in this issue, the IMA relies not on permanent faculty and researchers, but rather on a steady stream of visitors at all levels to drive its programs. One component of the New Directions program is designed to attract a group not usually drawn to the IMA: established scientists who are interested in redirecting their research.

The program will offer visiting professorships, for periods of nine to twelve months, in conjunction with the IMA's year-long research themes. For the 2003-04 academic year, two positions are expected to be available; the research program for that year is in genomics, the Internet, and finance, all from a probability/statistics/complex systems perspective.

The New Directions program, explains IMA director Doug Arnold, is designed "to help people realign themselves and become more valuable contributors to these interdisciplinary fields." It used to be that a person could spend forty years in the same research area, Arnold says, but that has changed: "The people who are successful today tend to be the ones who can change directions."

A second part of the program, also aimed at easing researchers' entry into new fields, is a series of short courses; the first, on cellular physiology, taught by Jim Keener of the University of Utah and Alexander Mogilner of the University of California, Davis, is scheduled for this summer, June 16-27. Participants (limited to 25) can expect an intense two weeks, says Arnold, who anticipates that interactions with biologists at the university will be part of the experience. The IMA sees the course as an efficient way for mathematicians to gain "the basic knowledge prerequisite to undertaking interdisciplinary research in the burgeoning field of mathematical biology at the cellular level."

In a late-December conversation with SIAM News, Arnold also pointed to another way in which the IMA has taken advantage of the collective expertise assembled in Minneapolis for IMA programs: a series of public lectures, given by (carefully chosen) visiting scientists. A recent success was a lecture on the traveling salesman problem by Bill Cook, who, Arnold says, "had the audience eating out of his hand." The audience, which ranged from retirees to area high school students (some receiving credit for attending), heard about applications of the TSP along with new algorithms for large-scale instances, including the solution of a million-city tour to within 0.09% of optimality and the exact solution of a 15,112-city tour.

Scheduled for the series this spring are Gene Meyers of Celera Genomics Research, who will be visiting the IMA for the last part of this year's program on data mining and will speak on May 6, and Charles Peskin of the Courant Institute, whose June 5 talk is titled "Secrets of the Heart Revealed---by Mathematics and Computer Simulation."

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