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Calculating Nature

Ailene MacPhersonNew graduate uses mathematics to see the beauty of evolution

By Tara Roberts

To Ailene MacPherson, math is a powerful tool for viewing the world.

“You can draw very elegant pictures with math and see things you wouldn’t otherwise see,” she says.

MacPherson is a graduating University of Idaho senior from Moscow and recent winner of the College of Science Dean’s Award for excellence in academics and research. She specializes in using math to depict the biological world, and she’s had the rare opportunity to run her own research project while still an undergraduate.

Working in biological science professor Scott Nuismer’s lab, MacPherson uses math to study local adaptation – the evolutionary changes that appear in species depending on where they live.

She explains the idea with the example of a pine tree. A group of pines living in western Washington may have different traits than a group living in northern Idaho, due to differences in rainfall, sunlight or other factors.

Some species show dramatic local adaptation, while others show little. Scientists have different hypotheses as to why. MacPherson created an analytical model and computer simulation to study how the number of traits an organism changes in response to its environment is tied to how well it adapts.

“If your trees are growing both long roots and greener leaves to adapt to their environment – say they have more sunshine there – they could be adapting a lot because they have more pathways,” she says.

On the other hand, a plant that adapts its roots only wouldn’t adjust to its environment as well.

MacPherson’s program can be used to analyze adaptations in any species that fit a set of basic standards, making it flexible and useful.

“One of the things I like about theoretical research is it’s not specific,” MacPherson says. “I could apply this to grass, I could apply it to wolves, I could apply it to anything.”

MacPherson fully expects to publish her work and has given multiple presentations on it. This summer, she will present at the Evolution 2013 conference in Snowbird, Utah, a gathering of thousands of the world’s top evolutionary scientists.

MacPherson’s research won’t stop at commencement. In fact, she’s graduating after just three years so she can go directly into U-Idaho’s master’s degree program in bioinformatics and computational biology.

She’s excited to continue integrating math and biology – a combination she found resistance to when she visited other universities, but great support for at U-Idaho. And she particularly loves using math to study evolution.

“It makes your world more alive. You see a tree and you don’t just see a tree – you see all the factors that could have made that tree become that tree,” she says.

In addition to continuing her studies, MacPherson will remain a member of U-Idaho’s track and field team, for which she is a long-distance runner.

“I couldn’t think if I didn’t run – I’d fall asleep,” she says with a laugh. “Running gives me a lot more energy to do school.”