SIAM News Blog

Levin Honored for Work on Sustainable Complex Ecosystems

By Carlos Castillo-Chavez

On April 25, at a ceremony held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Simon A. Levin of Princeton University received the 41st Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. The international prize, established by John and Alice Tyler in 1973, recognizes individuals who have "made outstanding contributions to scientific knowledge and public leadership to preserve and enhance the environment of the world."

I had the opportunity to attend this event, as well as the extraordinary lecture, "Obstacles and Opportunities in Environmental Management," delivered by Levin at the University of Southern California on April 24. In the course of these commemorative events, attended by family, friends, and collaborators of Levin, I collected a plethora of statements that vividly illustrate why Levin has joined the class of Tyler laureates, a prestigious group that includes May R. Berenbaum, Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Jane Goodall, Thomas Eisner and Jerrold Meinwald, Edward O. Wilson, Mario J. Molina, Eugene P. Odum, and G. Evelyn Hutchinson, to name but a few.

The Tyler Prize committee recognized Simon Levin "for his research revealing the complexity of, and relationships between, species and ecosystems. His work has been fundamental in the crafting of environmental policies and advancing the study of complex ecosystems—the myriad relationships and interactions in nature." USC Photo/Steve Cohn.
"Simon Levin has uniquely captured the importance of complexity theory and expanded our ability to think and to act positively in ways that will sustain global biodiversity and ecosystem services," said Alan Covich, a member of the Tyler Prize Executive Committee. Levin's research and mentoring of students and colleagues, Covich continued, have had "international impacts and provided greater understanding of self-organizing, complex adaptive systems. The ability to integrate models of natural and social systems provides new perspectives on meeting the many challenges of understanding nonlinear systems, especially those 'insurmountable opportunities' created by socio-economic dynamics."

Citing Levin's contributions in science and in science for policy, and his talent for communicating with general audiences, Don Saari stressed that these were gifts that Levin "has used effectively for advancing public awareness." In particular, addressing Levin, Saari applauded his accomplishments in "science for policy" that have been directed toward making lasting changes. "This ranges from the practical—serving on the board of directors of the New Jersey Nature Conservancy—to your work with the Beijer Institute, along with your leadership roles in several organizations, including the Santa Fe Institute and, as chair of the Council, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna.

Levin's contributions to our understanding of ecological systems have certainly been impressive, Mimi Koehl of UC Berkeley added, but "what makes him really special is the incredible job he has done of mentoring and educating such a diverse and distinguished group of students and postdocs . . . . Simon has made his mark on ecology not only through his own work, but also through his influence on his students and collaborators, both as a teacher and as a friend."

As a former postdoctoral fellow of Levin, I take this opportunity not only to congratulate him on this honor but also to thank him for the myriad of contributions that he has made to the mathematical community through his work with societies like SIAM; for his editorial work on a myriad of journals and book series that have highlighted and expanded the role of mathematics at the interface of the computational, life, and social sciences; and for the impact that he has had on placing mathematics at the heart of the study of critical environmental sciences, of health disparities, and of science policy questions that have a direct impact on the quality of our lives and the future of society.

On a personal note: I met Simon Levin through his articles and books in the mathematics library of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The recommendations of the late James F. Crow, Fred Brauer (my PhD adviser), and the ecologist Dan Waller convinced him, somehow, that I had a future in mathematical biology. After we met at UCLA in January 1985, Simon opened doors for me not only at Cornell University but also at his home; soon afterward, like every one of his students and postdocs, I became a member of the Levin family. He introduced me to the study of disease dynamics and evolution, and under his leadership we studied the dynamics of influenza under cross-immunity and the impact of social dynamics on the spread of HIV.

Further information about the prize can be found here.

Carlos Castillo-Chavez is Regents Professor, Joaquin Bustoz Jr. Professor of Mathematical Biology, and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University.

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