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Steve Crouch, Doug Arnold, and William Rundell

Steve Crouch, dean of the Institute of Technology; Doug Arnold, director of the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications; and William Rundell, director of mathematical sciences at the National Science Foundation.

U math institute recognized for international excellence

IMA receives $19.5 million grant from National Science Foundation

By Martha Coventry

Published on July 20, 2005

The popular image of a mathematician--influenced by actor Russell Crowe's portrayal of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind--is of a brilliant math mind struggling to solve an obscure problem, alone, and in his or her own world.

But the University of Minnesota Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) wanted to relegate that notion to the past. In 1982, the University proposed an institute based on the idea of collaboration--a radical notion at the time.

See the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (PDF-327K) to learn more about how the institute uses math to solve real-world problems.

Its dream was to bring to the University mathematicians, statisticians, scientists, engineers, and social scientists from all over the world to work together to solve important scientific, technological, and social problems.

It was a bold and insightful vision that has paid off. At a July 20 ceremony at the IMA office in Lind Hall on the Twin Cities campus, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the institute with a $19.5 million grant over five years--the largest single research investment it has ever made in mathematics and 77 percent more than the IMA has ever received. The IMA, which is a part of the Institute of Technology, is now the top math institute in the country in terms of funding.

"The IMA has become a preeminent mathematics institute that serves as a model for other institutes worldwide," says William Rundell, director of mathematical sciences at the NSF. "Its innovative interdisciplinary programs are an essential component of the NSF's portfolio."

With no permanent faculty, each year the IMA gathers more than 1,000 people from September to June to address a particular field that is selected by a national board each year.

In 2005, the IMA will focus on imaging--any of the ways to visualize data from the real world such as with an MRI scan--and then explore how to get information from that data.

"Basically, what we do with a program like this is to try to make the IMA the most exciting, most focused department on imaging in the world for that nine-month period," says Doug Arnold, the institute's director.

The IMA will hire about eight post-doctorate students who will be in residence at the University to study imaging. It will also scour the globe to bring imaging experts to the University for up to the full nine-month period. Weeklong workshops will be conducted on specific issues that pertain to the larger topic being explored. As in past years, all of these efforts will include dialogue, collaboration, and collegiality.

The IMA also forges links where none were seen before as it solves problems with broad social implications. For example, the language of computer security is highly biological--systems are infected with viruses and worms--and computer scientists look to biological systems for inspiration to combat such attacks.

In turn, biologists can learn about the immune system by studying man-made systems like computer networks. A few years ago, immunologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists came together at IMA to explore the issue and discovered a breakthrough for computer security systems, changing their approach from one of destroying a virus or worm to adapting the system to survive a hostile invasion--just as the body's immune system springs to action when it detects an infection.

"We've set an ambitious goal for the University of Minnesota to be one of the top three public research universities in the world. Accomplishments such as this move us closer to achieving that goal," says University President Robert Bruininks.

"The IMA offers programs that expand that talent base 'from graduate student to grave,'" says Arnold.

Another crucial part of IMA's mission is strengthening the talent base of mathematical researchers who are able to work in a collaborative way, says Arnold.

"The classical mathematical education you get in graduate school does not prepare you for interdisciplinary research," Arnold says. "The IMA offers programs that expand that talent base 'from graduate student to grave.'" Its "New Directions" program, for example, offers established mathematicians a way to learn about and perhaps embrace emerging new problems and interdisciplinary ways of working.

Steve Crouch, dean of the Institute of Technology, called the IMA an "idea factory" and said math is central to all of the work done at the Institute of Technology.

"Ask a mathematician in Europe where Minnesota is and they know where it is--it's not fly-over country," says Crouch.

As much as the IMA functions as a hands-on think tank, it also brings math to the masses through a popular lecture series. Last year, the senior animation scientist from Pixar animation studios talked about how a sophisticated mathematical technique called dynamic simulation was used to shape the look and behavior of creations in the movie The Incredibles.

When it comes to the IMA, what Arnold is most proud of are the outcomes resulting from the initial vision.

"If you look at the alumni of the post-doc program, you find many, many leaders in all sorts of areas of mathematics who carry with them an emphasis on interdisciplinary work," says Arnold. "They're at excellent universities throughout the country, great colleges, successful companies... it's a very, very impressive list. I think when the NSF looked at that list, it said, 'Wow, this place is a great investment.'"

In response to a question about what the NSF would like to see come from the grant after five years, Rundell said: "We shouldn't be telling you what the future is. You should be telling us."

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