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Revolutionizing the Study of Biology

The new National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology brings together researchers across disciplines.

A close-up infrared image of a fruit fly’s brain, displayed in neon reds, greens and yellows.
Studying the brain of a young fruit fly helps scientists achieve a mathematical understanding of how living systems learn and adapt. Image: Richard Carthew

Spring 2024

Northwestern has been awarded $50 million over five years from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Simons Foundation to establish the National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology (NITMB) — the first institute of its kind in the U.S. 

NITMB researchers will use mathematics to investigate some of the most important fundamental questions in the life sciences. The institute offers bidirectional opportunities: Discoveries in biology will motivate new developments in mathematics, and vice versa. 

The University of Chicago is Northwestern’s key partner in this initiative. Together the two universities will create a nationwide collaborative research community that will generate new mathematical results and uncover the “rules of life.” The institute will foster international collaborations at the interface of the mathematical and biological sciences as well, helping establish a vibrant worldwide research network for decades to come. 

“There are many deep questions about human life and all branches of biology,” says Richard Carthew, the Owen L. Coon Professor of Molecular Biosciences in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, who is director of NITMB. “Our goal is to better understand the mathematical basis underlying both the capabilities and constraints of living systems. We hope to revolutionize the study of biology, much like physics has benefited from an alliance with mathematics.” 

“We hope to revolutionize the study of biology, much like physics has benefited from an alliance with mathematics.” — Richard Carthew

Approximately 80 faculty — 40 from each university — will be involved in the institute’s work, including quantitative biologists (both experimental and theoretical), computer scientists, physicists and mathematicians. NITMB will be located on the 35th floor of 875 North Michigan Avenue (formerly the John Hancock Center) in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, ensuring access to Northwestern and University of Chicago researchers as well as collaborators from the U.S. and around the world. 

NITMB builds on Northwestern’s successful NSF-Simons Center for Quantitative Biology, established in 2018 to develop interdisciplinary research between mathematics and developmental biology, which has yielded scientific successes and the growth of a robust research community. The new institute will take this center’s foundation and expand it with new partners and an international reach, a broader scientific vision and dedication to training a diverse workforce across disciplines. 

Not just a research center, NITMB will create curricula and support research opportunities for students through graduate school and beyond, and will host public lectures that communicate the wonder of the living world and how it is understood through the lens of theory. The institute’s K-12 educational outreach component will take advantage of existing local programs and develop new ones to improve equity and inclusion of those underrepresented in STEM. 

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