Science Policy Activities

September 29, 1999


Calculating the Secrets of Life: Mathematics and Medicine

The AMS Washington Office organized its annual lunch briefing on mathematics for Members of Congress and staff on September 29, 1999, in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill.

Despite the frantic pressures of appropriations deadlines in this, the last week of the government's fiscal year, a satisfyingly large crowd of around sixty, including two Members of Congress and many Congressional staff, turned up to hear De Witt Sumners of Florida State University speak on "Calculating the Secrets of Life: Mathematics and Medicine". Congressman Allen Boyd, R-FL, introduced Sumners and AMS President Felix Browder acted as master of ceremonies. Also present was Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, member of the House Committee on Science and, since the death of Congressman George Brown, the current "champion of science" in the House of Representatives.

Presidents of several scientific societies also attended: American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, American Astronomical Society, Materials Research Society, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. AMS, working with the other societies, had arranged for them to be in town for a day of meetings with NSF Director Rita Colwell and Members of Congress with oversight for science funding and policy, including House Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, Ralph M. Hall, ranking Democrat on the Science Committee, and legislative assistants for the important appropriations subcommittee on VA/HUD/Independent Agencies.

Professor Sumners held the crowd's attention with a lively illustrated discussion of a few areas of medical research, indicating how mathematics plays a role in this research. Noting that the human body is an extremely complicated biological system which generates extraordinary data, he pointed out that mathematics is needed to build models and navigation tools in order to turn this huge amount of data into useful knowledge. Mathematics is used to compute the structure and function of life-sustaining enzymes that operate on DNA. These same enzymes that sustain life are also involved in life-threatening diseases, such as cancer; understanding structure and function opens the door to therapy. Geometry is used to build sophisticated heart models so that better heart defibrillators can be designed. Mathematics is also critical in relating brain architecture, as revealed by high-resolution MRI scans, to brain function, as revealed by Positron Emission Tomography and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans.

American Mathematical Society