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Research and winter weather draws Durrett to Duke

Mathematician Richard Durrett looks forward to warmer weather and challenging research at Duke and in the Triangle.

Mathematician Richard Durrett, an expert on probability, joined Duke in July.

Durham's climate drew mathematician Richard Durrett to Duke. He came here from Ithaca, NY for both the milder winters and the regional commitment to tackling the most difficult data-driven scientific challenges.

"Mathematics is motivated by the outside world," Durrett said. "I was overwhelmed by the opportunities offered by Duke and SAMSI (the Research Triangle-based Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute) to explore that relationship. I knew this was a place I wanted to be."

Durrett, 59, comes to Duke after having spent 25 years at Cornell University working on probability problems related to genetics, ecology and cancer. He began his research at the interface of mathematics and biology while working with ecologist Simon Levin in the late 1980s and later began collaborating with molecular biologist and geneticist Chip Aquadro to model the evolutionary dynamics of DNA repeat sequences.

"Rick is an outstanding probabilist, one of the best in the field of mathematical biology. We are excited to have someone of his stature and expertise in the department," said mathematics chair Harold Layton. Durrett joined the university's mathematics department and became SAMSI's associate director on July 1, 2010.

Math was "something I was always good at," Durrett said. But in high school, where he began to excel in the subject, "I had no idea what people did with math or what mathematicians would even do."

When he entered Emory University as a freshman, it was the Vietnam era, so Durrett decided to major in a practical subject, pre-med. He remembers enjoying the theoretical and mathematical work of the major, but "the lab part, not so much," he said. Durrett switched his major to math, going on to earn both his undergraduate and master's degrees while in Atlanta. Still wanting to apply his degree and mathematical skills to the real world, however, Durrett went on to earn his Ph.D. in Operations Research from Stanford University. He worked at UCLA before moving to Cornell in 1985.In addition to his research, Durrett has written college textbooks on the mathematics and probability of a diverse range of science concepts from Brownian motion to DNA sequence evolution. He helped lead Cornell's Probability Summer Schools and also acted as project director of a Cornell website, Math in the TV show Numb3rs, which explores the mathematics behind each of the show's episodes.

Durrett was elected to the National Academy of Science in 2007 and is a former Guggenheim and Alfred P. Sloan Fellow. He said he was excited to "teach all across the spectrum of mathematics," and to work with researchers at Duke and SAMSI on developing models of how diseases spread and how cells become resistant to cancer as a function of treatment.

He added that he and his wife are also looking forward to North Carolina's winter weather.