By Sophie Westbrook, ’19
If you met Dr. Martin Nowak on the street, you would be hard pressed to guess what he does for a living. His charismatic smile seems well-suited for something flashy, like acting, but his conversational tone feels too unassuming for that. He solicits ideas as much as he projects: you find yourself talking without meaning to. A better clue to Nowak’s chosen path would be his deliberate way of speaking. Listening to his graceful wording in a smooth Austrian accent, you might call him a diplomat. That would be closer to the truth. Nowak is a high-profile scientist, yet some of his greatest contributions stem from his ability to bring people and ideas together.
Dr. Nowak, Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard, operates in the spaces between formal disciplines. His work seems immune to trends towards hyper-specialization. At the most basic level, Nowak is both a mathematician and a biologist. He studies evolutionary dynamics, which means developing formal models to explain changes in anything from a species to a society. He calls mathematics “the language of science,” pointing out that it can be incorporated into any conversation about evolution. Enthusiastically, he explains that bringing a “precise mathematical understanding of evolution into every area of biology” would show us the hidden drivers behind phenomena we care about deeply, from disease evolution to leadership. We would develop categorically better models to inform our policymaking. It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the vastness of the goals Nowak describes for his field.
Nowak’s perspective has developed over the course of his career, but some of his interests were clear early on. He began by studying biochemistry and mathematics at the University of Vienna. He wrote theses on the evolution of RNA replication and on evolutionary game theory, which he describes casually as a paradigm in which “success depends on what others are doing.” His career took him to Oxford University as a post-doctoral fellow. Nine years later, he was a professor at the head of the school’s Mathematical Biology Group. Nowak then moved on to begin a new Program in Theoretical Biology at Princeton University. In 2003, he left Princeton and took up his current positions at Harvard University: Professor of Biology and Mathematics, and Director of the brand-new Program for Evolutionary Dynamics (PED). PED is a group of Harvard-affiliated and visiting researchers who use mathematics to model and predict evolution. They teach classes and hold events, but the organization is most famous for producing papers on an enormous range of topics. The work is connected through PED’s overall goal of quantifying how natural selection works.
It is a special thing to start a field, to open a door and see what comes through. This is what Nowak’s work does, and the impact has become especially clear at Harvard. Even undergraduates are encouraged to take PED’s framework and run with it. Nowak thinks of teaching as a privilege, speaking with real enthusiasm about his engagement with young students. Whenever possible, he gives them a chance to try out research for themselves. However, it is PED’s other residents–graduate students, faculty affiliates, research scientists, guests–who experience the full benefits of his leadership. As director, Nowak is dedicated to offering them the ideal academic environment.
What does that actually mean? In his view, it suggests that a hands-off approach is the only way to get “the best out of every person.” People have to follow their ideas. When asked how PED sets research priorities, Nowak delicately points out that the question misses the point. He explains that all members cooperate on a grand scale, but specific projects are born through individual interests. People walk into Nowak’s office when they want to study something; then, he tries to make the logistics work. He talks about this process as an intellectual and personal joy. Skimming through the diversity of projects going on at PED, one immediately understands where the excitement comes from. There’s a sort of runaway dynamism to the way that different experiments play off one another. One also gets the sense that managing the diversity requires high-level juggling. Because PED allows so many studies to progress simultaneously, its director’s ability to keep track of all of them is impressive.
One key to Nowak’s administrative success may be his own experience with this kind of research: he has been applying evolutionary dynamics to real-world systems for decades. This path has brought him into contact with subjects ranging from life’s origins to linguistic patterns. He is particularly knowledgeable about cancer and HIV, common interests at PED. In fact, his first book and most of his early papers tried to find more rigorous ways of analyzing disease dynamics. This interest has never faded: just last year, he coauthored eight papers on related topics. Much of the work centers on how drug resistance can evolve; however, it is impossible to identify a typical subject.
While Nowak’s work on disease has been extremely successful, his most famous ideas operate at a larger scale. One in particular cannot go unmentioned: he believes that cooperation can evolve. He maintains that behavior in which “you pay a cost for someone else to have a benefit” may ultimately improve your situation. Nowak believes that there are five ways for this to happen, most of which require repeated encounters and some form of reputation. He explains the simplest cases of cooperation with examples from game theory or ecology. However, one cannot help but wonder how Nowak’s ideas might apply to the much trickier interactions between people. Nowak addresses these questions with work like SuperCooperators, a bestselling book that explores the concept that humans are meant to be altruistic. For those who have not read it, he has a shorter message: “being generous, hopeful, and forgiving is a winning strategy.”
Such a big conclusion would more than satisfy most people, especially those with teaching and directorship responsibilities. However, Nowak is still seeking out new areas to explore. His website’s list of “current research interests” reads like the marching orders for an army of scientists with a decades-long mission. That is not accidental. Rather, it is a reflection of the same drive that led him to build programs like PED. Nowak wants to promote understanding of the forces governing life through a close look at evolution. He thinks that this approach receives too little attention: indeed, many subjects have been studied for years without a quantitative look at how natural selection is operating. The avenue may not be considered simply because it does not spring to the minds of researchers whose training did not focus on it. Nowak hopes to break this cycle by showing the scientific community that his models are broadly applicable and useful. Once mathematical biology enters more academic conversations, it will be easier for new work to make use of its tools. Through his pioneering research and his support of others’, Nowak is therefore building a framework for the community to use. Martin Nowak’s entire career is a testament to his faith in cooperation.
“Dr. Martin Nowak.” Personal interview. 7 Mar. 2016.
Nowak, Martin. “Director.” Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. < http://ped.fas.harvard.edu>
Nowak, Martin. Martin Nowak. ScienceSites, 2015. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. < http://www.martinnowak.com>