Priyanga Amarasekare joins Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution

We are living in an age of unprecedented environmental crises. Untangling how organisms are responding to rapidly changing environments is crucial. Ecological modeling provides a path to understanding complex patterns and will play a central role in helping us face climate change and biodiversity loss.

Specialty Chief Editor, Priyanga Amarasekare

Priyanga Amarasekare, a professor at UCLA, recently joined George Perry as a Specialty Chief Editor for Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution’s dedicated Models in Ecology and Evolution specialty section. The section publishes cutting-edge research that uses modeling approaches and theory to solve complex ecological and evolutionary questions.

We caught up with Priyanga to hear how she plans to put her spin on this section, and why increasing inclusion and diversity in the field is so important.

Why did you choose to study mathematical biology?

Biological phenomena are inherently non-linear. This is what makes them simultaneously so mysterious and so fascinating. We cannot unravel complexities without understanding the underlying non-linearities. Mathematics provides a way of reducing biological complexities to their essence; it provides a formal means of elucidating the underlying non-linearities that is clear, concise, and rigorous. This is why I study mathematical biology. It provides for a deeper and more satisfying understanding of biology than would otherwise be possible.   

What are some top emerging issues in your field?

Mathematical biology is at the forefront of understanding how global change will affect our planet. For us to truly understand climate change, we need to think across scales and disciplines. We need to develop theory that integrates changing environments, connects ecology to long term evolutionary change, and connects people across disciplines – integrating research from biochemical reactions in individual cells through to evolution. It is only through such developments that we can fully begin to understand the powerful effects of environmental change on our planet.

How do you hope the Models in Ecology and Evolution specialty section will evolve with your influence?

I would like our section to be at the forefront of publishing theory that is both good Biology and good Mathematics. The deepest levels of understanding come from theory that is solidly rooted in biology. Developing such theory requires biological insight, the ability to know what aspects of the biology are key and what can be left out. Mathematics is the tool that allows us to translate that insight into explanation and prediction. Mathematical skill is necessary but biological insight is essential. I would like to be able to foster a culture in which theory developed by biologists with an affinity for mathematics is as recognized and respected as that developed by mathematicians with an affinity for biology.

Why is diversity and inclusion important to you?

I know what it is like to be a woman of color in a male dominated field. I have experienced the best and the worst of being in such an extreme minority position. I have endured condescension and discouragement (“are you sure you did that right?”), and tried to rise above it with courtesy and grace. At the same time, I would not be where I am today but for the generosity and guidance of my mentors, all of whom are white males. I want to extend that generosity and guidance to as many aspiring scientists as I can. I want to use my position, and whatever influence I have, to work towards a world in which every young scientist has an equal opportunity to be inspired and to succeed. For those of who have been fortunate enough to pursue our dreams of being scientists, it is not enough to strive for excellence. We need to work toward making that opportunity available for everyone regardless of their race, gender, skin color, or sexual orientation. 

How can better representation in your field be achieved?

I firmly believe that efforts to increase diversity and inclusion in fields such as Mathematical Biology must start early, if not in secondary school, then at the university level. 

Mathematical training should be an integral component of all graduate programs in biology. This will go a long way towards eliminating the math-phobia that afflicts most biology students. We need to show them that integrating biology and mathematics is an exciting intellectual challenge, to help answer fundamental biological questions. This is particularly important in increasing female and minority representation in Mathematical Biology because most students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are discouraged from pursuing research on the basis that it is too difficult and should not be attempted. 

Beyond this, we need to actively encourage scientists from under-represented groups to submit their work for publication. This could be achieved through active solicitation of articles from individuals and greater public encouragement through social media, letters to academic institutions by journal editors-in-chief. Whenever possible, the cost of publication should be subsidized for minority scientists without adequate funds.

Finally, we need greater representation of women and people of color involved in the editorial process from peer review to editorial boards. Efforts to increase broader representation has been ongoing for decades, but we need to do better. There should be a formal procedure by which, each year, senior scientists in the field are asked to submit five or more nominations of qualified individuals from under-represented groups.

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