Although Michael Kelly entered college thinking about biology and pre-med, he quickly discovered his fascination for solving problems through mathematics. In his senior year, researching with a professor in mathematics and sports, he found the perfect combination of disciplines in an area called mathematical biology. And he got a taste for the real-world application of math. It propelled him through grad school and into his work as a new professor.
The combination of interdisciplinary work and real-world application is at the heart of Kelly’s work with students at Transylvania. “Being able to see how math applications can be used and the overlap in other disciplines—that’s why I’m here,” he says. “Transylvania is a great environment for this kind of application. The sciences are in the same building on campus—subjects and students overlap.”
The collaboration between disciplines is seen in his classes and the projects he supervises. Kelly’s mathematical modeling class in May term deals with ecology, biology and economics. This summer he’ll help an economics student develop a model on how media spreads through populations. The student will formulate problems to assist advertisers in deriving the most from their media buys. Kelly is already teaching the student optimal control theory (one of his main research areas) in anticipation of the research project.
Engaging undergrads in research is essential to Kelly’s teaching. And he explains just how approachable it is for students—“because you can think about the biological, real-world problem and translate it to a math problem and come up with interesting results.” (Pre-med students get an introduction to this in his Calculus 1 class.)
Biology continues to command the focus of his own research. His areas of interest include mathematical modeling in infectious diseases (prevention), invasive species (eradication) and natural resources (such as fishery management). Knowledge of biology comes in handy, he says—something that a liberal arts education makes possible.
“In mathematics you use what you know to get an answer,” Kelly explains. “You’re able to tackle real-world problems.” Kelly lives to find solutions to these problems, teach the process and share the tools with others. It’s what enthralls him—and his students.