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Biomath event to honor former professor

Participants in a biomathematical computing conference will discuss research and pay tribute to a retired Binghamton professor whose work has been instrumental in the emerging field.

“Biomathematical Computing: Past, Present and Prospects” will be held
Oct. 31-Nov. 2 on campus. It will feature more than a dozen research talks from scientists around the state, country and world and a gala dinner at the Kilmer Brasserie in Binghamton.

The conference will honor Tom Head, professor emeritus in the Mathematical Sciences Department. Head, who retired in 2005 after 17 years at the University and 23 years at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, has lectured on the topic in places such as Malaysia, Spain, Japan and Romania. He also received the Yellow Tulip Award at the 2002 Workshop on DNA Computers in Sapporo, Japan.

Many of Head’s former collaborators, colleagues and graduate students will take part in the conference, with some coming from as far away as India, Italy and Japan. Up to 50 participants are expected.

“I’m simply surprised and delighted, especially with some of the people I love the most from Europe and Asia coming over,” said Head, who still lives in Vestal. “I never expected this in all my life. It’s such an honor. It’s a very touching thing.”

The conference was primarily the brainchild of Susannah Gal, associate professor in the Biological Sciences Department. Gal, who conducted research with Head in the late 1990s, began to develop the plan after meeting one of Head’s former graduate students — Natasha Jonoska of the University of South Florida — at an international DNA computing conference in Memphis in 2007.

“I suggested wouldn’t it be nice to have a meeting in Binghamton, and (Natasha) said Tom’s 75th birthday is coming up,” Gal said. “I said, ‘Maybe we can do something around that.’”

Last summer, Gal received support from the math and biology departments, pulled in researchers from Geneseo, Potsdam, Cortland and Oneonta, and was awarded a SUNY Conversations in the Discipline grant for the conference. She then started the invitation process for a conference that will be held two months before Head turns 75.

“I actually didn’t tell Tom until about two to three weeks ago,” Gal said. “It was supposed to be a surprise, so we had to try to keep the (conference) website confidential and hidden. He thought something was going on, but he didn’t realize how big it had gotten.

“Lots of people coming are old friends of his who don’t travel a lot, so it’s exciting to have them together in one place.”

Head was impressed by Gal’s efforts.

“It’s an incredible thing to arrange a conference like this when teaching full time,” he said.

The University has never hosted a biomath conference before.

Biomathematical computing is believed to have its origins in 1994, when scientist Leonard Adleman used DNA to solve a traveling salesman problem: If a salesman has to visit six to 10 cities, what is the best route to take without repeating a visit to any of the cities?

Today’s challenge, Gal said, is finding the best math problems to solve with DNA. The conference will discuss how to move the field forward.

“We want to find other problems like the traveling salesman problem,” Gal said. “That’s a simple one for only a few cities, but when you start getting 1,000 cities, a silicon computer has too hard a time figuring out the possibilities. We’ve got to find the right balance between what DNA can solve and what a computer cannot.”

The conference also will feature a discussion about biomathematical curriculum. Head and Gal served as consultants when SUNY Geneseo applied for and received a National Science Foundation grant for an Undergraduate Biomathematical Research Career Initiative.

“Tom Head’s ideas in, and support for, DNA computing have stimulated several interdisciplinary research projects and have personally given me many ideas for my own research,” said Tony Macula, an associate professor of mathematics at Geneseo who helps to lead the college’s biomathematical effort and is scheduled to speak at the conference.

Gal envisions the Geneseo program as a springboard to discuss interdisciplinary steps such as calculus courses incorporating biology or computer science students taking biology courses.

“I’m excited about having everybody together in a small setting that allows us to really focus on this,” Gal said. “Having a group of people in a small meeting in which we have time to talk and hash out what the best problems are will be fun.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08