Bard Ermentrout: From rhymes to research


Image via University of Pittsburgh

University professor and world-renowned mathematical biologist G. Bard Ermentrout currently teaches a single class per semester, but incorporates students from all different levels into his research work.

By Erica Guthrie, Senior Staff Writer

Tucked away in a quiet hallway on the fifth floor of Thackeray Hall, the office of distinguished University professor G. Bard Ermentrout is filled to the brim with dozens of books on biomathematics, empty champagne bottles signed by his graduated doctoral mentees and a signed poster of Peelander-Z, a Japanese action punk band.

“I like punk,” Ermentrout said.

Bucks County-native Ermentrout, who goes by Bard, is a world-renowned mathematical biologist. He studies animal navigation using the olfactory system — such as when dogs follow scents — and the interaction of periodic stimuli, like geometric patterns or flickering lights, with ongoing activity in the visual system. However, for those who work closely with him, he is also a skilled amateur chef, master of limericks and well-versed gardener.

In his younger years, Ermentrout had imagined he would pursue the field of chemistry for his career. After a mishap while doing an experiment involving explosives when he was 15 years old, he decided the field was not the best fit for him.

“I blew off a few fingers, lost my hearing, things like that. I switched to theory, it was safer,” he said. “I was in the mathletes in high school. I’ve always liked math and I was always pretty good at it.”

After receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics at Johns Hopkins University, Ermentrout decided to continue his education with a doctorate from the University of Chicago.

“I was a math major in college, but always thought about possibly going to med school, so I started to read about how math could be useful in biology and medicine, discovered they had this program at the University of Chicago — brand-new, theoretical biology,” Ermentrout said. “I was either going to do that or number theory. I have no regrets doing math biology. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, whereas in number theory, all the easy problems were done by the Greeks.”

After being recruited by a Pitt faculty member who was familiar with the area of mathematical biology, Ermentrout was the first to work in this field at Pitt.

“When I first came here, there was nobody doing math biology. I did it, and the guy that recruited me here dabbled in it, but he really was not a math biologist,” Ermentrout said. “I feel like I sort of built the community around here. We now have four faculty who do math biology. One of them is the chair of the department now, and we’re recruiting a couple more.”

Ermentrout has won several prestigious awards in his field throughout his time at Pitt. He was a Sloan Fellow, Society for Industrial and Applied Math Fellow and a recipient of the Math Neuroscience prize.

He has also made many friends among his fellow faculty. One of them, Brent Doiron, another professor in the mathematical biology field, said Ermentrout is known among his colleagues and students for being very social.

“He’s very genuine, he doesn’t put on airs, he’ll talk to anyone about subjects he finds interesting and he has a wide variety of subjects he finds interesting,” Doiron said. “He’s very available to his students — open-door policy, students come in, he’ll answer questions.”

Currently, Ermentrout only teaches one class per semester, which is Mathematical Biology 3380: Pattern Formation this semester. Most of his work lies in is his research, in which he works with a lot of students at all different levels.

“Teaching is nice because you’re always around young people and it gives you a little more energy. I have lots of undergrads that do research with me, and Ph.D. students and postdocs,” he said. “With the undergrads, it’s sort of more fun because I can do wacko projects that I wouldn’t do with the graduate students because for the graduate students, this project has to take them onto the next step, whereas undergrads seem to be happy to do projects with anyone on anything.”

Ermentrout estimates that he has done research with between 50 and 100 undergrads during his career. This unusually high number of undergrad researchers that Ermentrout works with has caused him to gain a reputation among the other math biology professors at the University, Doiron said.

“We call him the cat lady of undergrads because he always has a bunch of undergrad researchers,” Doiron said. “With an undergrad, he wants to help a young person get a leg up in science.”

One of Ermentrout’s recent doctoral graduates, Jay Pina, said he found it very interesting that Ermentrout lets students with no mathematical background work with him on his research.

“He’s always willing to work with people of any academic background as long as they seem to be interested in the area and willing to work,” Pina said.

Pina said he was most impressed by Ermentrout’s ability to simultaneously pursue his many interests outside of academics.

“He’s world-famous within his field. We all knew that coming in,” Pina said. “He comes to work every day and just has so many other hobbies that he’s working on and cultivating his knowledge on. He’s just full of knowledge about all kinds of topics, whether it’s food or gardening or trivia.”

One of Ermentrout’s many passions outside of his career is gardening. He said he prefers to grow vegetables over flowers because he can consume the products of his labor. This past fall, he harvested about 50 Trinidad Moruga scorpion peppers at his home in O’Hara Township. These peppers are the second-spiciest chili peppers in the world.

Limericks are another talent of his, which he said is only natural as his name is Bard. He got his start when he was in grad school, where he wrote limericks about faculty members he didn’t like. When Vice, an online culture website, asked him for scientific purposes if whoever smelt it really dealt it, he responded back with a limerick on the topic that they subsequently published in an article.

“Mostly they’re science-based limericks, and most of them are pretty vile,” he said.

Despite his wide variety of interests, Ermentrout is satisfied with his career choice.

“It’s a really good life, an academic life,” he said. “You mostly think and do what you want to do.”