Peter Borwein, founder and director of IRMACS


Interdisciplinary math

April 18, 2012

According to founder and director Peter Borwein, it’s difficult to sum up IRMACS in a word. “Collaboration” might work. Or “innovation”. “It’s a big story,” says Borwein, a mathematics professor at SFU. “It doesn’t lend itself to one-line encapsulations.” He admits that when he dreamed up the Interdisciplinary Research in the Mathematical and Computational Sciences (IRMACS) Centre, he didn’t realize what a unique community he was building.

IRMACS was established in 2004 as a centre for interdisciplinary research with mathematics and computer expertise at its core. Researchers use IRMACS’s state-of-the-art computational, visualization and communication resources to solve real-world problems.

“Our projects are tied to a practical reality,” says Sandy Rutherford, Scientific Director of the Complex Systems Modeling Group (CSMG) at IRMACS. CSMG works closely with provincial ministries to analyze healthcare and justice systems. Their computer models predict the impact of policy changes.

“A lot of police work involves dealing with people with mental illness,” says Rutherford. “Changes in the health care system have significant impacts on the criminal justice system.”

CSMG computer simulations often predict how change in one part of the system may have unexpected consequences in other areas, a valuable tool for those in charge of resource planning. For example, CSMG has developed models for the BC Ministry of Justice on the impact of the province’s impaired driving legislation on case flow. Deputy Solicitor General of BC Lori Wanamaker cites this project as “just one example of the valuable opportunities that can be achieved using complex systems modelling and advanced computational technology...Such research parallels the effects of the British Columbia Justice Reform Initiative to address the current challenges of the province’s criminal justice system.”

“This lets us manage the system rather than the system managing us,” says Helen Pedneault, Executive Advisor for Justice Process Reforms and Performance Measures in the Ministry of Justice.

But IRMACS isn’t just for large-scale government projects. Meeting rooms, workspaces, video conferencing and computational clusters are available to researchers who apply to use them. “We currently support 50 research projects,” says IRMACS’s Technical Director, Brian Corrie. “We’ve gone to great lengths to make this a place where researchers want to be.” Scientists from various disciplines work next to each other and learn from each other’s research. “We facilitate collaborations that wouldn’t likely happen otherwise,” says Corrie.

One example is the Modelling of Complex Social Systems (MoCSSy) graduate program at IRMACS. It brings together experts in criminology, health sciences, and urban dynamics to model and study social issues such as crime, homelessness and addiction. Students receive interdisciplinary training and often the opportunity to work with industrial or government sponsors, to develop a better understanding of the complicated dynamics of social systems.  

With seven years behind it, IRMACS has submitted a proposal to the Canada Foundation for Innovation for PRISM (Practical Research and Innovation through complex Systems Modelling). This next-generation research institute will focus on conservation and bioinformatic infrastructure for health research. It will also increase support for Aboriginal initiatives, and share graduate programs both within SFU and with international partners to become the premier collaborative interdisciplinary research centre in Canada and possibly the world.

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