UC Mathematics expert appointed distinguished professor

Press Release – University of Canterbury

A University of Canterbury mathematics expert who researches how life on Earth began has been appointed a Distinguished Professor.Canterbury mathematics expert appointed distinguished professor

November 30, 2014

A University of Canterbury mathematics expert who researches how life on Earth began has been appointed a Distinguished Professor.

Professor Mike Steel, of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, has been elevated to the status of Distinguished Professor, a title which is reserved for professors who clearly demonstrate world-class academic leadership and achievements of the highest international standing over a decade or more.

Professor Steel is also the recent recipient of the University Research Medal, the highest honour the university’s council can extend to its academic staff in recognition of research excellence.
Professor Steel uses mathematics to help biologists discover more about the evolution of life. He was awarded the medal in recognition of his leading work in phylogenetics which is the science of reconstructing evolutionary trees and networks from genetic data.

He is director of the university’s Biomathematics Research Centre, hosted within the School of Mathematics and Statistics, is Deputy Director of the national Allan Wilson Centre and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. He has been involved in more than 200-peer reviewed publications and has co-authored two books.

“Mathematics is really essential since it gives a way of systematically exploring the huge space of possible evolutionary scenarios. Also, since evolution is really a random process, probability models play an important role” he says.

“The question of how life began on a molecular level about four billion years ago has been a longstanding problem in science. A necessary condition for early life seems to be the formation of a chemical reaction network.

“We are seeking to find out if the formation of these first steps of life were an amazingly lucky accident, or something that might be expected. Many researchers find it hard to imagine how such a molecular network could have formed spontaneously from the chemical environment of early Earth.

“For scientists the aim in origin of life research is not to find out how life actually began, that’s something we may never know, but rather how it might have begun so we know a plausible scenario for its formation by natural processes.

“The origin of life is quite controversial among scientists with many theories but relatively little data. Our findings are helping to provide a mathematical explanation and they suggest that the spontaneous emergences of the first steps of life are more likely than had been supposed by many working in this field.

“I am really honoured to be awarded this promoted position. It’s just great for the university and for students also, as we look to an exciting future on a redeveloped campus.”

Engineering Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Evans-Freeman says Professor Steel’s research continues to attract world-wide interest, while his teaching passes that knowledge to future generations.

“He is an example of why a strong research intensive university is of enormous benefit to the city and to the region. It is precisely these kind of people we must attract and retain to protect and enhance the reputation of the University.

“Mike is a wonderful example of how pure and applied research crosses boundaries and leads to clear societal benefits and this promotion puts the spotlight on engineering for the benefit of all,’’ Professor Evans-Freeman says.

Professor Jack Copeland, who researches the philosophy of computing and cognitive science, and Professor Niki Davis, a New Zealand expert in e-learning, have also been promoted to the rank of Distinguished Professor.


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