Building on Strengths and Finding One’s Purpose
Abstract of the lecture
One enjoys what one does, when one does what one enjoys. This principle has guided my own life, and is central to the way I mentor students. I encourage them to find problems about which they are passionate to be guided by their own convictions, and not by what others think they should do. I suggest problems to students, but I do not assign them. I believe that if students work on my problems, their work will be uninspired, and their contributions minimal. If they work on their own problems, they have the potential to achieve results others could not have envisioned, and that can change disciplines. I have tried to follow this principle in my own career choices, though at times some of the pursuits seemed quixotic.
I was always driven by two, apparently conflicting motivating forces; being able to combine them created synergisms that allowed me to do what I enjoyed, to enjoy what I did, and to be productive in addressing problems I felt were central to bettering society. I loved puzzles, and still do, and was entranced by the power, beauty and abstraction of mathematics. But I also felt a passion to channel my efforts for the betterment of society, in particular regarding the fragile nature of our environment, and the insults upon it from our own activities. Uniting mathematics and biology, in particular ecology and evolution, was a natural goal, but a relatively novel enterprise 40 years ago. This lecture will trace the interlocking development of my own interests, and of mathematical biology, which is by now a rich area of research, of great attractiveness to bright young researchers. I will also discuss some of the great challenges facing us, and my current passions: building strength throughout the world in these areas, especially in the developing nations at most risk from environmental change; building interdisciplinary partnerships with economists and social scientists, as well as physical scientists; and addressing the roots of selfishness in regard to environmental uses, in order to find cooperative solutions to the sustainability of our common resources and heritage.