Student Essay Contest

More than Research: A Day in the Life of a Biomathematician: An Interview with Anita Layton

2013 AWM Essay Contest: Undergraduate Level Honorable Mention

By: Anne Talkington, Duke University, Fayetteville, NC

For biomathematics researcher and Duke University Mathematics professor Anita Layton, success comes in many shapes and sizes. She explains: if you achieve the overall goal you set for a project, that is a big success. If you make a step towards solving your goal, that is a little success. If you receive a grant for a project, if a paper gets published, or if a student you mentor graduates and finds a job, you have succeeded.
Layton’s day as a mentor and research supervisor consists of teaching, administrative duties, research, and meetings. Yet, of the varied aspects of her work, she cannot pick a favorite. She enjoys it all.
With the full support of her family, Layton (known at the time as Anita Tam) left her native Hong Kong to enroll in Duke University’s undergraduate physics program. Over time, Layton’s interests shifted from actual experimentation to computer programming, resulting in employment as a computer consultant. Later, Anita Layton graduated from the University of Toronto with a doctorate in computer science. Her experience with the mathematical modeling of weather patterns led her to the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Ultimately, she returned to the Research Triangle and Duke University.
Professor Harold Layton, Anita’s husband, introduced her to research at Duke. Here, they frequently collaborate on projects together. The Laytons’ research has incorporated the use of calculus to describe physical and biological processes that are critical to bodily functions.
Anita Layton’s current research project is a specific example of using mathematical principles to model the biology of everyday life. It focuses on chemotropisms in yeast, or how yeast cells “know” what is around them. From data about chemical sensing and cell signaling, Layton models how the yeast responds to its environment. She is constantly tweaking formulas that relate the strength of specific signals to the path of cell growth. Each model begins simply, becoming more complex as she adds parameters to better represent reality. By working with and learning about a specific organism, she finds the potential to expand her ideas to more general modeling, and cell signaling.
In addition to their work, the Laytons share a happy family life with their two children. They are careful to prevent their life at work from invading their time at home. Therefore, the math they do at home is no different from the math other parents do: explaining basic concepts to satisfy their children’s curiosity.
Despite her busy family life and the multitude of responsibilities at work, Anita Layton has managed to produce nearly 35 papers in the past two years, and has acquired several grants to continue her research. The scientific papers she writes often take a year to be published in a notable scientific journal, such as the Journal of Computational Physics or the Journal of Mathematical Biology. While her experiments continue to evolve, Layton publishes her intermediate progress. Her chemotropism project, already a work of nearly four years, lingers as a research initiative. Layton presents her discoveries across the United States and abroad, and still manages her schedule of classes among the network of conferences, workshops, and project presentations of her latest findings.
Like her schedule, Anita Layton’s writing is carefully planned. She likes it to be organized, to “tell a very nice story.” She views each academic work as a means of communicating an idea to an audience with limited knowledge on the topic.
Layton loves teaching. She is serious about her work, but maintains a sense of humor and enthusiasm. She relates well to students across a variety of majors, from biology, to engineering, to physics. The diversity in Layton’s classroom resembles the diversity in her laboratory – people with varied interests, coming together to learn and grow. Each day brings a new topic, and a new mathematical model to explore.
Anita Layton’s class is discussion-based, a combination of theoretical principles and applications. Layton challenges her students’ intuition, presents them with scientific concepts, and then encourages them to develop questions of their own to study further. She promotes a dynamic of academic community within the classroom. Her students critique one another’s work and the legitimacy and implications of new research. They learn from each other as well as from their experienced professor.
Anita Layton serves as a mentor for both graduates and undergraduates. She helps to organize and actively participates in programs such as the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in Mathematical Biology, and serves as Assistant Director of the Research Training Grant at Duke. Layton, an affiliate of the Association for Women in Mathematics, also supports the Duke University Women’s Mentoring Network. The predominantly male field does not intimidate her. “I work just as well with men as I do with women. Really. … As for being a woman mathematician, I don’t find it particularly challenging. There are always people against you. If it is not because of your gender, it will be [because] of something else. I usually don’t let such things get to me.” In the face of adversity, “work hard” is her solution.
Layton’s parental instincts translate to her mentorship as she sees her students grow up, graduate, and move on. No two students are exactly the same, so she looks to lead them down the path that will best help them later in life. She sees each student as an individual with special talents to nurture and specific goals to achieve. She guides them, as they continue to accomplish great things.
Regardless of which project Layton is working on, she does not find the conflicting ideas of fellow researchers in the laboratory discouraging. Layton feels that ideological conflict is a good thing. It allows people from various backgrounds to share different perspectives. She knows that collaboration plays a significant role in science. Although this scientific collaboration could be stressful for many, it is not for Anita Layton. She thrives on communication, and truly loves what she does.
About the Student:
I am interested in investigating mathematical models with broad biological applications. My first exposure to mathematical biology was through a research position at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. In the biotechnology lab, I developed my own equation for calculating microbial population growth based on the exponential Maclaurin series expansion. I see complex biological phenomena as a way to test models and use them to refine techniques. I intend to research patterns that could apply in fields such as molecular biology, ecology, or cancer research, and pursue a doctorate in mathematics.