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UNC among partners in new NSF-funded institute addressing challenges in math, statistics

CHAPEL HILL -- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a partner in a unique new research center specially designed to confront difficult scientific challenges through application of statistical and mathematical reasoning.

With $10 million in principal funding from the National Science Foundation, Research Triangle Park on July 1 became home to the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute, or SAMSI. Other partners in this effort are Duke University, North Carolina State University and the National Institute of Statistical Sciences in Research Triangle Park.

SAMSI is the first institute in the world to focus on simultaneously enlisting both the statistical and applied mathematical sciences to confront the most difficult and most important scientific challenges in scientific modeling and data analysis.

Those challenges will be as diverse as global climate simulations and modeling the course of HIV infections.

While the NSF has committed to providing $2 million annually for the first five years, the Triangle university partners are also contributing about $1.1 million in annual matching funds, divided roughly equally among the three. In addition, the William R. Kenan Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science is contributing $50,000 per year in leveraging funds.

SAMSI will be "an exciting combination of NSF and Triangle-area resources," said Dr. J. Stephen Marron, Amos R. Hawley professor of statistics at UNC.

"These include the universities, local institutions, and – most important – our people. In particular, there are more than 400 faculty members in related areas, together with many hundreds more in local industry.

"This special concentration of talent is fundamental to SAMSI’s tackling a wide range of major modern problems, from climate modeling to bioinformatics."

Central to SAMSI’s mission is attracting both young and senior researchers from universities, government laboratories and industries in the United States and beyond for collaborative research, said Dr. James O. Berger, SAMSI director and Arts and Sciences professor of statistics at Duke.

Their goal, he added, is addressing problems whose complexity requires extraordinary levels of group multidisciplinary interaction. SAMSI also focuses on what experts call a big need at the institutional level: training the next generation in both fields to work and think collaboratively on major scientific and societal issues.

Statistics uses the tools of probability and data analysis to model complex phenomena. Applied mathematics uses mathematical equations that describe the physical or biological properties underlying such complexities.

"In the past these problems have been addressed in two different ways by these different groups," Berger said. "What we’re saying is the groups should work more closely together to find a new synthesis for modeling complex phenomena. The effect will be considerably more powerful than the two approaches separately."

The institute will be led by a directorate that includes Berger; Dr. H. Thomas Banks, Drexel professor of mathematics and director of the Center for Research in Scientific Computation at N.C. State; Dr. Alan F. Karr, National Institute of Statistical Sciences director as well as a professor of statistics and biostatistics at UNC; and Marron. It will be housed in the National Institute of Statistical Sciences building in RTP.

"SAMSI will educate graduate students and postdocs in a unique environment focused on the synergism between applied mathematics and statistics," said Banks. "These young researchers will address problems ranging from HIV dynamics to nanotechnology."

In his dealings with the corporations and government agencies that are affiliated with the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, "I see daily evidence of the need for SAMSI," added Karr. "The problems faced by these organizations, which range from homeland security to drug design, are too complex to be solved without bringing together multiple disciplines, especially statistics and applied mathematics."

Scientific input will be provided by a National Advisory Council, chaired by Dr. Peter Bickel of the University of California at Berkeley and Dr. Margaret Wright of New York University, as well as by a Local Development Committee of leading Research Triangle scholars.

SAMSI is one of three new research institutes being established by the NSF to "help strengthen the mathematical sciences as the backbone for U.S. scientific and engineering research," according to a July 2 announcement by the agency.

At all three "mathematicians and statisticians will tackle new and compelling research and create venues for educating the next generation of scholars," said Dr. Philippe Tondeur, director of the agency’s Mathematical Sciences Division.

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