Faculty Spotlight: Richard Bertram

Richard Bertram, a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics, Interdisciplinary Data Science Master's Degree Program, the biomathematics program, the Institute of Molecular Biophysics and the Program in Neuroscience, uses mathematics to understand biology and physiology. Courtesy photo.

Richard Bertram is the Tam Family Professor and a distinguished research professor in the Department of Mathematics and the director of the biomathematics program. He is also a graduate faculty member of the Institute of Molecular Biophysics and the Program in Neuroscience, all part of the College of Arts and Sciences, and he earned his Ph.D. in mathematics from Florida State University in 1993. Bertram will join the IDS faculty this fall. 

Tell us about your background.

I’ve been interested in applying mathematics to biology since I was in graduate school. Completing a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health cemented that interest, and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve been involved in the biomathematics undergraduate and graduate programs since I started as a professor at FSU in 2001, and I am now the director of the programs. I am also on the faculty of the Institute of Molecular Biophysics, which has an interdisciplinary graduate program, the Molecular Biophysics program. Finally, I’m a faculty member in the interdisciplinary graduate Program in Neuroscience.

When did you first become interested in mathematics?

When I took my first calculus class in college. I never liked math in high school, and my math grades were less than stellar. However, I was a much more serious student in college. Calculus was a big challenge for me, and I spent many hours completing homework and preparing for tests. By the end of the semester, I earned an A in the class, realized that I was pretty good at math and even liked doing it! I then changed my major to mathematics.

You’re set to be one of the faculty members teaching as part of the new FSU Interdisciplinary Data Science Master’s Degree Program. What are you most looking forward to about that experience?

I have really grown to enjoy the study of networks. Networks are everywhere and include things like social networks (real and virtual), contact networks for the spread of disease, information networks, and networks of interacting biological molecules. It’s a lot of fun talking about this material, and the mathematics involved is interesting to me. I just finished teaching the Graph Theory and Networks course for the second time, and even doing it over Zoom was fun! I look forward to teaching this class in person in the future as part of the Data Science program.

How does mathematics lend itself to data science?

Mathematics was developed largely to interpret and make sense of experimental or observational data. Newton’s laws of motion made it possible to formulate mathematical descriptions of planetary motion, which was previously very mysterious. For most of human history, the data sets have been small, like observations of changes in planet location in the night sky. Now, in many instances, data set sizes are huge. In such cases, it’s impossible to pick out patterns by eye or by drawing sketches. Mathematics is the only way to go, with the help of computer programming for number crunching. We’re using tools that were developed for much smaller data sets and are developing new tools needed for the much larger data sets now available through new technologies.

What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?

Each of my current projects employs mathematics to understand physiology. The project I’ve worked on the longest is the biological mechanism underlying pulsatile insulin secretion. Clinically, this is an important topic since one common observation in Type 2 diabetics, the most common type of diabetes, is that the insulin pulses are disorganized, rendering the insulin less effective at doing what it does. I’m also working on a project investigating how chronic stress affects cells in the pituitary gland that release stress hormones. It turns out that the mathematics involved here is similar in some ways to that used in another project on pathological rhythms in cardiac cells that can lead to sudden death.

I’m also involved in a really interesting collaboration looking at the way that a song bird, the zebra finch, learns how to sing its song. I have also recently started collaborations on two other projects in neuroscience. My passion comes from the desire to understand answers to the questions that drive my research. I also love collaborating with other scientists and students, and each of these projects involves both.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is it important?

My research team, working in collaboration with experimental scientists at FSU and elsewhere, uses mathematics to understand biology. Along the way, we develop new ways to apply mathematics, so we are both applied mathematicians and biologists. I would like the public to know just how useful mathematics is, and in our case, how it is being used to make progress in understanding complex phenomena like diabetes, cardiac disease, the effects of chronic stress, and the working of the brain.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your research?

I collaborate with several experimental labs, which have all been affected by the pandemic. As a theorist, much of what I do can be done anywhere, including on my back porch, but my research is closely tied to that of my experimental collaborators. I work with several undergraduate and graduate students, and our frequent interactions have been replaced by weekly Zoom meetings with each student. It works, but the spontaneous brainstorming that usually happens has been greatly reduced.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

I came to FSU as a scientist working at the Institute of Molecular Biophysics and became a faculty member two years later in the mathematics department when the new biomathematics program was started. I enjoy working at FSU because of the people. The faculty, staff, and students are a pleasure to work with. It’s been very easy to establish collaborations at FSU, which has been a big asset to me as both a researcher and educator.

What is your favorite part of your job? What is the most challenging part of your job?

Working with collaborators and students is my favorite part of the job. The most challenging part is grading.

Who are your role models?

I’ve been very fortunate to have had good mentors throughout my life. Although there is a perception that science and mathematics are very individualized endeavors, these are largely social activities. Your success is tied closely to your social network, and good mentors help you establish that network. My mentors also helped me learn how to find good problems to work on and to write clearly and concisely.

How do you like to spend your free time?

I’m a musician, and before the pandemic I frequently played with two bands and performed at many gigs around town. I look forward to doing that again. I also love the outdoors and spend each weekend hiking, kayaking, biking, and/or swimming.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

I hope they learn the importance of good scientific writing. I spend more time writing and editing than I do anything else. Even for mathematicians, good writing is extremely important and can mean the difference between success and failure.