Mathematician Finding New Ways to Protect the Planet
Mathematician Finding New Ways to Protect the Planet

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

When he was a young boy growing up in China, Meng Xu never missed an episode of a television show very similar to Animal Planet. With each viewing, he daydreamed about a career as a caretaker of the planet and its creatures.

He just didn’t think mathematics would get him there.

Meng Xu

Xu, a lecturer in mathematics, studies mathematical patterns in a variety of species, including trees in a New York forest and fish in the world’s largest reservoir. A postdoctoral researcher in the Laboratory of Populations at Rockefeller University in New York, Xu collaborates with a team there while also teaching and researching at UNH.

His research centers on noted ecologist L.R. Taylor’s discovery in 1961 that became known as Taylor’s Law, a universal model that can help explain and identify population patterns. The law holds up in many areas of ecology and in the transmission of some infectious diseases, childhood leukemia, cancer metastases, blood flow heterogeneity and gene structures.

“I’m trained as a mathematician and statistician, but what fascinates me most is not just observing the pattern from a mathematical point of view but trying to understand what the underlying mechanism is governing this pattern,” he said. “That’s what I’m driven to research.”

The more that math is used to discover patterns, the more likely ecologists, conservationists, policy planners and public health specialists will be able to use the results to make predictions to save species and possibly prevent outbreaks of diseases, Xu said.

Taylor’s Law is widely applied to pest control of crops, allowing farmers to better fight pests and save crops. Other findings could help predict fish population growth or decline in a particular body of water that could lead to the development of more effective conservation policies for the fishing industry.

Xu received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Shandong Normal University in China and his Ph.D. from the University of Wyoming. While at Rockefeller University, he was able to merge his passion for mathematics with his long-held interest in the natural world, collaborating with mathematicians, statisticians, ecologists and demographers to study ecological patterns. Xu and the research team will publish two papers this year.

He joined the UNH community last fall, drawn by the opportunity to teach, pursue his research and mentor undergraduates and graduate students in their research. “I love the combination of teaching and research,” he said. “The students ask excellent questions that advance my own knowledge of the field.” His long-range plans include involving students in his Taylor’s Law exploration and other research as well.

“My goal is to understand what ecologists are thinking and how they understand the same question from a different point of view,” he said. “Then I combine their views and my expertise in math to come up with a strategy.”

An avid hiker and skier, Xu is pleased that his research keeps him connected to the natural world he cares so deeply about. “I like nature very much,” he said. “It’s very exciting work.”

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