University Lures Specialist In Interdisciplinary Science

Mathematical biologist won from high-profile Princeton institute



Harvard recently offered tenure to a 37-year-old mathematical biologist—a move in line with calls by University President Lawrence H. Summers to tenure younger professors and expand interdisciplinary approaches to science.

Martin Nowak has been wooed away from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study with a relatively rare joint appointment in both the Department of Mathematics and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.

The offer was made and accepted in mid-August and was first reported by the Boston Globe.

Summers has said that approaches to science will increasingly have to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries, often citing Nowak’s specialty—the emerging field of computational biology—as an example.

Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby has echoed this support for interdisciplinary initiatives.


“I hope we will begin to discuss planning that cuts across departments,” Kirby said in an interview last month. “In many areas, disciplinary boundaries are eroding.”

Summers has also spoken of the need to tenure professors who still have their best work in front of them.

Nowak fits both bills.

Nowak said at Harvard he plans to continue applying math to different questions in biology. His interests include evolution of genomes, cancer and the biological aspects of human language.

Though Nowak has accepted Harvard’s offer, his tenure is not yet official.

Robert Mitchell, a spokesperson for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, said the case is still waiting for final approval, but he added he “can’t foresee any problems.”

“We are all looking forward to him coming to Harvard,” Mitchell said.

Nowak called the opportunity to work at Harvard is a “dream come true,” citing the benefits of the Boston area over Princeton.

“The only thing missing was the sense of collaboration I could get at Harvard, and in Boston,” he said.

Harvard’s acquisition of Nowak amounts to some measure of payback after Princeton lured two star Afro-American studies scholars—Cornel R. West ’74 and K. Anthony Appiah—away from Cambridge last year.

Daniel Rubenstein, chair of the evolutionary biology department at Princeton, said Nowak had been a “very valuable resource for our graduate students.”

Nowak was born in Vienna and earned his Ph.D from the University of Vienna. From 1989 to 1998 he worked at Oxford University, where he was a professor of mathematical biology from 1997 to 1998.

Since then he has conducted research at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study, where he established a program in theoretical biology.