Integrating Mathematics, Computer Science/Engineering, and Ecosystem Science to study complex problems

Julia Jones (Geosciences)
Bruce D'Ambrosio (Computer Science)
Tom Dietterich (Computer Science)
Mark Harmon (Forest Science)
Enrique Thomann (Mathematics)
Ed Waymire (Mathematics)
With 15 additional participating faculty members in seven graduate programs in four colleges at OSU: Agriculture, Engineering, Forestry, and Science

Our society faces many complex problems involving ecosystems and natural resources. Science and engineering have provided us with an abundance of data, models, and concepts. The enormous power of computers and computer networks now permits us - perhaps! - to synthesize and interpret this information into knowledge to help solve society's problems.

Sharing, interpreting and synthesizing knowledge using computer networks is called "informatics". "Informatics" is admittedly a geeky term - but it is a common-sense and powerfully unifying approach to complex problems. Scientists used bioinformatics to assemble the genetic information in the Human Genome Project. Many key areas of knowledge - climate change, species extinctions, water supply and water quality, history of life, earthquakes and volcanoes, forestry, ocean and coastal management - depend upon informatics to synthesize information and contribute to decision-making.

Informatics involves a team-based approach to tool design, development, testing, and modification in the process of scientific inquiry. Formerly, a single scientist such as Galileo or Kelvin could accomplish all these functions, but in modern science, they are separated. And yet, the problems we face as a society require ecologists to be competent in using mathematics and computers, while computer scientists and mathematicians are increasingly interested in contributing to natural resource problems.

Ecosystem Informatics is an approach to education that permits graduate students to engage in focused problems involving ecosystems and natural resource management and policy. The discipline is a meeting point for ecosystem science, computer science, and mathematics. Ecosystem science brings complex systems rich in interactions, changing contexts, and challenging links with the natural resource management and policy arena. Computer science provides tools and algorithms to deal with large datasets and complex models. Mathematics offers analytic frameworks for defining and solving problems. For the student with a background in computer science, ecosystem informatics offers the chance to get out of the cubicle city into the forest. For the ecosystem scientist, ecosystem informatics provides a solid grounding in mathematical analysis and computer science tools. For the mathematician, ecosystem informatics represents the opportunity to apply theory to help solve problems of concern to society.

The Provost's initiative builds upon a National Science Foundation-supported Innovative Graduate Education and Research Training (IGERT) program to educate graduate students in Ecosystem Informatics ($3.9 million, 2003-2009). The IGERT currently involves more than 20 faculty members from four colleges at OSU: Agriculture, Engineering, Forestry, and Science. The Provost's initiative will create for four additional faculty positions in three colleges. These efforts will enable Oregon State University to become a national leader of the emerging science and expanding area of employment in ecosystem informatics.

Oregon State University is strongly positioned to lead nationwide efforts for education in Ecosystem Informatics. OSU is an acknowledged leader in ecosystem science - the study of the biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) components of complex systems and their interactions. Ecosystem science underlies the key natural resource policy and management questions facing society today. OSU also has commitment to and expertise in mathematics, engineering, and computer science. These disciplines are critical to informatics. The Pacific Northwest brings a range of challenging ecological and natural resource problems.

PhD graduates trained in Ecosystem Informatics will be qualified for diverse jobs that benefit society. Ecosystem Informatics is based on an approach to problem solving, rather than specific problems. The power of Ecosystem Informatics lies in its ability to cut across, and contribute to, a very wide range of interdisciplinary problems affecting Oregon and the world.

By reintegrating natural science, mathematics, and engineering, OSU's program in Ecosystem Informatics will create a new generation of innovative scientists better able to solve ecosystem problems in industry, government, and academia. Graduates will be able to work on interdisciplinary teams, and contribute to discovery in mathematics, computer science, and ecosystem science. OSU's Ecosystem Informatics program is a pioneering venture to educate academics and professionals. Through this program Oregon State University will help lead the revolution occurring as the lessons of bioinformatics spread to natural resources and terrestrial, aquatic, and ocean ecosystems.