Finding patterns that illuminate big problems: Princeton biologist wins top science honor

     Simon A. Levin.  (Image courtesy of Princeton University)

    Simon A. Levin. (Image courtesy of Princeton University)

    What if examining the ways bees cooperate or how bacteria protects our guts could help us understand the dynamics of large forests and even financial systems? That’s essentially what Simon Levin has been doing as a mathematical biologist.

    The Princeton researcher is now being awarded the nation’s top science honor, the National Medal of Science.

    Levin is credited with creating new ways of analyzing the environment and human behavior through mathematical models. He has used this approach to look at everything from bird flocks to cancer cells to fishery management to stock markets.

    “He’s really transformed the field of ecology and evolution by introducing new ideas based in mathematics that have resulted in huge changes in the way we understand system dynamics,” said longtime colleague Jane Lubchenco, an ecologist at Oregon State University and the U.S. Science Envoy for the Ocean.

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    The way Levin explains it, he uses math to extract patterns on the small scale, such as how plants conserve resources, and then scales that up to better understand larger problems in human populations and the natural environment.

    “These are all organisms with limited resources trying to plan for the future,” said Levin. “And evolution has given us lots of solutions to these problems, which perhaps gives us some insight as to how we ought to be dealing with our own problems.”

    Chief among those problems for Levin is climate change.

    Levin will join eight other scientists in receiving the award next month.

    “It’s incredibly gratifying and rewarding,” he said. “I think I’d continue doing what I’m doing even if I were in a dark room, but it’s nice to know others appreciate the work as well.”

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