The objective of blending evolutionary biology with applied mathematics may sound daunting in concept, but when you ask principal investigator Geoff Wild what the research goals of his lab are, his answer is surprisingly straightforward: “It’s easy for research that marries math and biology to become convoluted. In our lab, we want to boil mathematics to its essence. We’re not concerned with having fancy integral signs or complicated equations—we want to use math in a way that allows it to be understood by a wider group of people.”
Established in 2008 within Western’s former Applied Mathematics department, the Wild laboratory is devoted to questioning the virtues of the human experience that are often taken for granted. When Geoff did Western Science Speaks podcast about the evolutionary advantage of niceness, it was captivating how effortlessly philosophical angles could be applied to the nature of his research. Geoff’s need for understanding who we are at our core is palpable.
Presently, his main research interest focuses on human communication: “I want to know what drives the evolution of honesty and communication. Why do you trust what I’m telling you? What selective pressures incentivize me to be honest with you? Communication is what holds us together as the cement in our society.”
The Wild lab consists of a small team, passionate about fusing non-technical, theoretical language with numerical research. A senior student in the lab, PhD candidate Evan Mitchell, is a modeling expert who handles, what he describes as, the “nitty-gritty” math details. Entering his final year in the lab, Evan cherishes the tight-knit structure of the group and praises his supervisor’s ability to see the big picture:
“What makes the lab unique is that we have a cohesiveness - even if we’re all working on different projects. Whoever requires the most help at any given time, is who usually dominates the lab meeting. That calms a lot of research anxiety. When everyone is contributing and manifesting this wholesome group effort, it’s obvious to me as to why I love science.”
Currently, the Wild lab has several ongoing projects including a deep-dive into the evolution of pathogen virulence (how microbes facilitate the damaging of a host) and a comprehensive analysis of need-signaling from offspring to parent. With a decade in the books as a leader, Geoff reflects on how his values have changed: “I’ve become easier on my students over time. I haven’t lowered expectations, but I think it’s dangerous to not give praise. Over time, I’ve understood the value of kindness and positivity. Having natural talent in math is certainly a bonus, but what’s important to me is that my students are enthusiastic and excited about our specific targets.”
Lab Member Highlights
I joined the Wild Lab to collaborate on a project about parent-offspring signalling with Geoff and Christine. I’m interested in learning more about how inclusive fitness modeling approaches can provide insight into how evolution has shaped animal behaviour.
As an undergraduate member of the lab, I enjoy exploring possible research areas. Current research consists of studying the signals between parents and offspring. Projects considering the evolution of viruses remain of primary interest to me.
Geoff’s research interest in evolution really appealed to me. He’s able to blend non-technical or theoretical language and numerical research. He sees the big picture. Now, as a senior member in the lab, my role typically includes modelling and differential equations. Anytime there’s an issue with the model being used, I look at it and query if there is something we can do differently.