Spotlight on Research: Professor applies mathematics to biology

October 21, 2015 by Katie Bennett, Contributing Writer

When Assistant Professor of Mathematics Julie Blackwood was applying to Rochester Institute of Technology as an undergraduate, she had to choose a major right away. “I looked through the list and saw ‘applied math,’ and I thought, ‘Alright, check!’” But when an advising professor asked about her interests outside of math, Julie (as she is affectionately known by her students) had to think a little harder.

Recalling childhood veterinary aspirations, she picked biology as her minor, and chose to make  the “applied” part of her degree focused on mathematical modeling of biological systems. Blackwood bounced around, taking classes in neuroscience and cellular biology, before she “took a course on mathematical ecology, and fell in love.” This led her to graduate studies in applied math at the University of California at Davis and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan in ecology and evolutionary biology. Since she started on her biologically-applied mathematical path, Blackwood has studied the effects of fishing on coral reefs and the transmission of rabies in vampire bats. At the College, as the first applied mathematician in the mathematics department, she works with various populations and models of disease, including bats and cicadas. As she put it, the motivating question for her research is always “How can I understand important ecological questions using mathematics?”

Math is an incredibly powerful tool for population studies because it’s not feasible to go into the field and answer questions on the topic on a large scale. Blackwood explained, “You can see if I choose a particular management, manage a fishery a certain way, how that will change the ecosystem. It’s hard to go to a field and test how these things will really work, but you can use models and integrate this with real data.”

As a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Michigan, Blackwood had the opportunity to combine two of her areas of interest – mathematical ecology and disease modeling. “The advisor I was working with was looking at disease, and one project he proposed was working on rabies in vampire bats. I was especially interested because it integrated my interest in ecology with infectious diseases. I used mathematical models to try and understand how rabies was persisting in vampire bats,” Blackwood said. Her 2013 published article, “Resolving the roles of immunity, pathogenesis, and immigration for rabies persistence in vampire bats,” showed that culling of rabies-infected vampire bats is actually a poor strategy for disease containment, because the diseased bats then disperse to infect other populations – mathematically speaking, the bat colony size wasn’t a predictor of the presence of rabies.


Photo Courtesy of Julie Blackwood. Professor Julie Blackwood uses applied mathematics to try to answer ecological questions.

In her time at the College, she’s advised two honors thesis students in bat-related projects. “I worked with David Stevens [’14], and then Alex Meyer [’16] picked it up, trying to understand the dynamics of white nose syndrome. One of the main species they’ve affected is little brown bats,” Blackwood said. “The thought is they come out of torpor, and they use up their energy reserves, and starve. It’s an emerging disease, and there’s not much known about the biology.” The goal is to figure out when the transmission is happening – maybe during hibernation, or perhaps during the “swarming period” –  and use models to understand the dynamical impacts of different types of management. Meyer has already uncovered significant results building off Stevens’ work, so Blackwood is shifting his thesis work to a new project on periodical cicadas.

Cicadas are a “fascinating insect,” Blackwood said. Periodical cicadas live underground for 16 years, feeding off tree roots, and then emerge in their 17th year to breed. Blackwood is “working with the University of California at Davis, [University of Massachusetts at] Amherst and the U.S. Forest Service. There are a lot of interesting ecological questions, such as spatial distribution of cicadas, where [they] are segregated by brood,” Blackwell said. “There’s also an interesting property where periodical cicadas can speed up or slow down by exactly one or four years, but there’s not much known about how much that happens.”

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