A Career at the Interface

Simon Levin
Simon Levin. Credit: Princeton University. Click image to download.
In the graceful movements of birds in flight, Simon Levin, Ph.D. ’64, mathematics, sees principles of fluid dynamics at work.

In bees and their unfailing devotion to their queen, he finds lessons on economic cooperation.

The flu virus, creating variations to thwart human immunity for millennia, underscores for Levin the importance of incorporating flexibility into the most highly regulated of industries.  

After more than 50 years applying mathematics to ecology, epidemiology and economics, Levin remains fascinated by nature and the light it sheds on human responses to threats and stressors. His life’s work has been identifying biological and behavioral processes in diverse ecological settings, all of them offering potential solutions for man-made problems.

In bestowing Levin with the 2014 National Medal of Science, President Barack Obama praised his ability to straddle ecology and applied mathematics to promote conservation in an era of climate change. He called Levin an international leader who has made an “impact on a generation of environmental scientists (with) his critical contributions.”

Today, Levin works at Princeton University, where he holds the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professorship in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and leads a research lab with more than 20 members.

Since 1999, he has focused on the management of public goods and lessons in economic cooperation that can be gleaned from microbes, plants and animals that willingly share resources. He points to bacteria that signal one another to exchange biological favors and bees and termites that often sacrifice their own fitness to protect their social unit.

“How do we manage the commons we live in?” Levin asks. “How do we cooperate in this world we share?”

A pioneer in the development of theoretical ecology, Levin was instrumental in launching the field of spatial ecology in the 1970s. He used mathematical analysis to examine, in an evolutionary context, the mechanisms underlying natural patterns of dispersal and movement across geographic areas, looking at everything from seeds to wildebeest herds. 

Levin’s attempts to answer critical questions about resource sharing in marine settings, forests and beyond have earned him praise around the world. 

In 1988, he won the Ecological Society of America’s Robert H. MacArthur Award that honors significant contributions to ecology by a mid-career scientist.

He was named the Kyoto Prize Laureate in Basic Sciences in 2005, the same year the eponymous emission-reducing protocol first went into effect. His Kyoto lecture on global change outlined the clash between individual and collective behavior for an audience of the world’s most renowned environmental researchers and policymakers.

“Cooperation is widespread in the animal kingdom, especially in human societies,” Levin said in the lecture. “But the tribes and societies and cultures we build become devices for conflict among groups, and too often it is that conflict and competition that strengthens the membership bonds. When groups come together, it is often because there is a common enemy. ... We must recognize that we have a common enemy, and that enemy is the extinction that awaits us if we do not change our ways.”

Levin insists his current line of work examining economic systems isn’t a dramatic departure from his many contributions to ecological research. Like the biosphere, socio-economic systems also require some safeguards for the common good, he said.

Looking at cellular and vertebrate evolution, Levin found several examples where organisms evolved robustness that could be copied by those who govern modern markets.

Take for example the vertebrate immune system. It can’t predict when or which dangers will befall an individual, so built-in defenses like the skin protect while immune system cells broadly attack and develop antibodies in response to specific threats.

“It’s a great model for the markets,” Levin said. “Our societies should have built-in protections and responses that are generalized, while we develop specialized adaptive responses.”

The ability to shut down markets to avoid a free fall, he said, needs to be paired with flexible solutions that sustain a nation’s economy through a crisis.

Regardless of subject area, many of the mathematical underpinnings of Levin’s research are based in game theory, which models conflict and cooperation between decision-makers, or dynamic systems theory, which seeks to understand behavior in fluid settings.

“The math is quite similar,” Levin said. “But the process of creating and then selecting evolves. You can’t be satisfied with the solutions you’ve worked out because the environment is always changing. We have to be continuously innovating.”

Levin’s interdisciplinary approach and his willingness to work with researchers who may not come from the same school of thought are keys to the success of his projects.

“You really have to find people who are interested in learning outside their expertise,” he said. “I’ve been lucky to have chosen great partners.”

Interacting with leaders like the late Nobel prize-winning economists Kenneth Arrow and Thomas Schelling, MIT economist Andrew Lo, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Jane Lubchenco, and UMD infectious disease expert Rita Colwell, Levin continues to reach across fields to find meaning. This is a lesson he traces to his days as a doctoral student in UMD’s Institute for Fluid Dynamics and Applied Mathematics.

Levin’s advisor, UMD Mathematics Professor Monroe H. Martin, encouraged Levin’s desire to use math to answer biological questions. Martin suggested Levin pursue postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, with operations researcher George Dantzig, B.S. ’36, mathematics. Dantzig was the son of Martin’s former colleague, UMD Mathematics Professor Tobias Dantzig.

“George Dantzig convinced me you can work on whatever interests you the most,” Levin said. “Any problems I’ve worked on since have given me insights on how to look at new problems.”

Today, Levin offers this same advice to a new generation of researchers. Like those termites and bees, he wants to see more researchers working toward the common good, even if it means stretching across cultural or political lines.

“These opportunities are really important for academic programs, and they’re exactly why I’m committed to multidisciplinary research,” he said. “Collaboration is more important than ever.” 

Written by Kimberly Marselas

This article was published in the Fall 2017 issue of Odyssey magazine. To read other stories from that issue, please visit go.umd.edu/odyssey.

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The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and nine interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.