An elusive tycoon who manages billions of dollars from his private island near St. Thomas has donated $30 million to Harvard to support a newly-recruited professor’s research in mathematical biology.
In a meeting two weeks ago with University President Lawrence H. Summers, financial baron Jeffrey Epstein pledged the money to support the work of mathematical biologist Martin A. Nowak, who takes his post at Harvard on July 1.
Nowak, currently a professor at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, uses mathematics to model human behavior, the evolution of human language and the genetic changes that occur in cancerous cells.
Nowak, 36, was granted tenure by Harvard in August 2002. He was given a rare joint appointment in the mathematics and the organismic and evolutionary biology departments.
The offer came after Summers’ call to tenure young professors and those who do interdisciplinary work. He has also repeatedly emphasized his commitment to promoting scientific research.
As a leading mathematical biologist, Nowak will bring an interdisciplinary focus that has been rare at Harvard.
“At Harvard, there is a tremendous opportunity,” Nowak said. He predicted that the field of mathematical biology would see enormous growth in the next 50 years.
Nowak said he plans to continue investigating evolutionary theory, viruses and cancers using biological data and advanced mathematical techniques.
“I hope to contact people at the Whitehead Institute [for Biomedical Research at MIT] to work at the center and to establish a fascinating program in mathematical biology,” Nowak said. “I want to have undergraduates, post-doctorates, professors and visiting professors working at the center.”
Nowak said he first met Epstein four years ago when the two were introduced by Princeton University trustee and former Microsoft Chief Scientific Officer Nathan Myrvolb. Since then, the two have formed a close friendship, and Epstein has frequently funded Nowak’s studies—to the tune of $500,000, according to New York Magazine.
A long-time Harvard donor, Epstein has also befriended Summers and former Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Henry A. Rosovsky, according to Nowak.
Epstein, a self-educated Coney Island native, refuses to handle accounts of less than $1 billion, according to New York Magazine.
Although he did not graduate from college, he is said to have strong intellectual passions, which have led him to cultivate friendships with Nobel-prize winners and presidents alike.
Epstein’s scientific curiosity separates him from the average philanthropist, said John Lindsley Professor of Psychology Stephen M. Kosslyn. Kosslyn has also received research money from Epstein.
“Jeffrey Epstein is one of the most intellectual people I’ve ever met,” Kosslyn wrote in an e-mail. “He’s more than just casually interested: he goes out and meets the people doing the cutting-edge work, and gets to know both them and their research in detail.”
Epstein has forged connections with both academics and politicians. For example, he introduced Nowak to President Bill Clinton, and he also brought Kosslyn together with Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz. Dershowitz now teaches a class with Kosslyn.
“He is a ‘connector’—he likes to bring people together who otherwise wouldn’t have made contact,” Kosslyn wrote.
Epstein first became well-known when he embarked on an African AIDS awareness tour with Clinton on Epstein’s personal jet. Since then, he has made major donations to humanitarian causes and scientific research.
Nowak has been one of Epstein’s favorite recipients and has used the estimated $500,000 to organize conferences and conduct research.
—Staff writer Stephen M. Marks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Lauren A.E. Schuker can be reached at email@example.com.