Urgently Examining Environmental Impacts of Fertilizer Run-off
Angela Peace applies mathematics to help solve diverse questions proposed by biological phenomena.

Credit: Tyrus Peace

This ScienceLives article was provided to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

A mathematician at heart, Angela Peace applies her powers of quantitative reasoning to biological problems. As a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, Peace uses mathematical modeling to determine the effect of phosphorus pollution from fertilization run-off on the food web dynamics of freshwater lakes. She wants to know how small planktonic crustaceans called Daphnia and algae grow in different phosphorus levels. As human activity continues to alter the balance of nutrient cycles in the natural environment, the questions that Peace asks and the answers she seeks through mathematics have become increasingly more urgent.

Name: Angela Peace
Age: 27
Institution: National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis
Hometown: Tempe, AZ
Field of Study: Mathematical Biology

The National Science Foundation: What is your field and why does it inspire you?

Angela Peace: Ever since I was young, math was always my favorite subject in school. I liked the challenges and rewards offered by problem solving. I knew that I wanted to work in a field that uses applied mathematics. During my undergrad days, I was introduced to the world of mathematical biology. This is a field that uses math modeling and analysis to help us better understand the world we live in. Here math can be used to help solve all different kinds of biological problems, such as determining vaccination strategies to prevent epidemics or helping conservation efforts by improving our understanding of nutrient cycling and population dynamics. Discovering this field was exciting for me. It offered opportunities for using applied mathematics to solve all kinds of diverse questions proposed by biological phenomena. [Math Careers Just Don't Add Up For Women ]

NSF: Please describe your current research.

A.P.: Currently, I am working on modeling consumer-producer populations in order to study the effects of food quality on consumer dynamics. I am investigating the growth response of Daphnia, which are small planktonic crustaceans, and algae under varying phosphorus levels. My collaborators and I use a framework called “ecological stoichiometry,” which considers the balance of multiple chemicals in ecological interactions, to develop mathematical models. The models are used to help determine the effects of phosphorus pollution, introduced via fertilization run off, on the food web dynamics of freshwater lakes. 

NSF: What is the primary aim of your research? / What is your primary professional goal?

A.P.: My research aims to improve the predictive power of theoretical population ecology. As human activities continue to alter environmental balances and nutrient cycles, it is becoming vital to understand how these changes can impact the environment. Throughout my career, I hope to shed light on the mathematical and physical properties in many complex biological systems. I believe that mathematically modeling the essential elements and their interactions using ecological stoichiometry is one the best tools we have to better understanding this world. 

NSF: What is the biggest obstacle to achieving your objective(s)?

A.P.: One of the biggest obstacles to successful math-biology modeling is gaining enough insight into the biological complexities to develop a useful model. A useful model needs to capture the correct dynamics while remaining tractable, and it must avoid being overly complex. Approximations are needed — the hard part is figuring out which approximations are appropriate to make. Strong collaborations with ecologists and comparisons with empirical data are required to help overcome this obstacle. 

NSF: What do you like best about your work? 

A.P.: I like so many things about my work! It’s challenging and rewarding and constantly presents different problems to tackle. I am always learning something new, whether it’s a unique aspect of biology or an introduction to a new mathematical concept used in modeling. I have to collaborate with others, so I get the opportunity to work with great and impressive researchers with diverse specialties. 

NSF: Which professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

 A.P.: As a graduate student I was fortunate to have the opportunity to mentor an undergrad with her honors thesis. Her research project involved measuring feeding rates of Daphnia, small planktonic crustaceans. It was very rewarding to help her design her experiment and watch her take ownership of her research. I was so proud of her excitement for her thesis. I definitely want to be involved in teaching and mentoring students throughout my career.

NSF: What is the best professional advice you ever received? 

A.P.: A few years ago someone told me the best way to succeed in research is to read. You should read as many scientific research papers as you can. Try to get through a couple papers each week. That might not seem like a lot at first, but many of these papers are scientific and dense. There is so much new research going on out there that it is impossible to keep up with everything, but constantly reading will help give you an idea of what is known and where the gaps are. 

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NSF: What exciting developments lie in the future for your field? 

A.P.: Mathematical biology has a very bright future. The incredible amount of data that’s being collected these days will advance both mathematics and biology. There are ever-increasing amounts of data on all sorts of systems, from gene regulation and the evolution of genomes to climate change and global chemical cycles, as well as the growth and treatment of cancers. Data will help validate models, which will in turn help interpret the data. Mathematical biology is a growing field with a very exciting future. 

NSF: Who is your #1 hero and why?

A.P.: In the early 1900s, Alfred J. Lotka developed fundamental contributions to theoretical ecology, stressing the important role of math in the biological sciences. He developed a predator-prey model that became the base framework of many ecological models. His 1925 book, “Elements of Physical Biology,” has great insight as he describes the entire world as a living system. Lotka fundamentally contributed to this field and gave us hope that it may be possible to break down the enormous complexities of biological systems and understand them. 

NSF: What do you do when you’re not in the lab or out in the field? 

A.P.: I am quite fond of riding my bicycle. I am all about enjoying a nice long ride on a good road bike. It’s good for clearing your mind and it’s nice to spend time outdoors. 

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