Mathematicians Combine To Solve Practical Problems

October 22, 1997

A new western-based organization is bringing mathematicians out of the ivory tower to help solve problems that affect daily lives. One result could be earlier detection of lung cancer.

Established in 1996, the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIms) aims to apply the mathematician's skill in ways that might, at first, seem unusual.

"We want to bring mathematicians and industry together to solve practical problems," says Arvind Gupta, associate professor of computing science at Simon Fraser University, one of PIms' five founding universities. "A lot of emphasis recently has been placed on applied research and we felt that mathematicians have been left out of the loop."

To help get mathematicians into the loop, PIms asked the industrial sector to submit problems to a workshop in August at UBC. Teams of faculty and graduate students from PIms were assigned to solve six of the 20 problems submitted.

One, from the B.C. Cancer Agency, involved finding a better way to identify cancerous lesions in the lungs. "If we could find a quicker way of identifying the cells from the lesions as cancerous, we might be able to reduce the mortality rate which now stands at 85 per cent," Gupta explains.

The team working on the problem included a pure mathematician, applied mathematician, statistician, physicist and two computer scientists from five western universities, including SFU, as well as cancer agency biologists.

"The biologists were using a very complicated model to solve the problem," Gupta says. "What we, as mathematicians, could do that they hadn't done was identify the key components of the model. We quickly understood what model to use and were able to distill the important parameters. The biologists will be able to take our model and refine and make it more complex if necessary.

"It took us a day-and-a-half to arrive at a common language so we could understand each other's terminology because we don't usually work with people in other disciplines," he adds. "While we haven't solved the problem yet, we continue to work on it and the cancer agency is quite excited by our progress."

Another problem presented to the workshop involved stress levels for compressed gas containers such as propane or natural gas cylinders. Powertech Inc. wanted to find out how to tell when tiny cracks begin to show in these kinds of cylinders. The team working on this problem provided an answer before the week-long workshop ended.

PIms was established in 1996 by SFU, the University of Victoria, University of Calgary, University of Alberta and UBC. It aims to foster new mathematical research, as well as to communicate better the work of mathematicians to educators and the public.

Gupta says another workshop is planned for next summer when industry again will be asked to submit problems. He explains that the organization now provides its members with the resources of each university's faculty, as well as better communications with western Canada's far-flung universities.

"In Ontario there are eight universities within an hour of Toronto, but at SFU, for example, there is only one. PIms helps give us the resources to tackle problems for business and provide greater resources for academics, educators and the public."

PIms is supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the B.C. government, as well as the association's five member universities.

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Simon Fraser University

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