Behind a Huge Math Prize, a Push for Breakthroughs By Linking Up Multiple Fields

The Simons Foundation's Math+X investigator program offers some of the biggest, sweetest awards a mathematician could imagine, and it's is all about collaboration between high-level mathematics and other fields. The 2016 awardee’s ideas have impacted photo sharing, spotting phony art, even fossil hunting.

Simons funds a lot of mathematics and physical sciences, as well as work that links up multiple fields, both types of work that can be overlooked by funders—life sciences generally draw more attention these days, and interdisciplinary research can fall through the cracks. 

So the foundation, the philanthropy of Marilyn Simons and mathematician and former hedge fund manager Jim Simons, tends to back some pretty unique research. We like to check in now and then on some of the funder’s always-expanding grantmaking, the latest of which boosts a trailblazing professor whose work has had expansive reach.

Related:Inside the Simons Foundation: Big Philanthropy on the Frontiers of Science

Duke Prof. Ingrid Daubechies likes to solve a variety of tough problems using mathematical concepts, and her track record in doing so has made her one of the most prominent in her field. 

She’s best known for her work with wavelets, mathematical functions that can be used to compress and to make sense out of noisy data. Daubechies’ work on the subject has contributed to the ability to compress images, allowing them to be easily stored on a computer or mobile phone. But applications of her work are far-reaching, spanning the FBI’s fingerprint database, bird songs, earthquake detection, and brain scans. She’s also worked with historians to help restore works of art and spot fakes.  

Daubechies has racked up several distinctions along the way, including a MacArthur fellowship and a Guggenheim fellowship. She was also the first woman to receive the National Academy of Sciences Award in Mathematics and the first woman elected president of the International Mathematical Union. 

With Simons’ support, Daubechies plans to continue her work combining engineering and math to advance machine learning algorithms that can analyze large heaps of data. One such application involves examining 3D shapes to help anthropologists sift through fossil specimens. She’ll receive $1.5 million over the next five years, with the possibility of renewal. 

The grant is part of the Simons Investigator Program, the foundation’s take on providing flexible, long-term support for creative researchers, focusing on theoretical sciences. The Math+X Investigator is a new addition, with the inaugural award in 2015 going to Michael Weinstein for his work in mathematics of waves in engineering. 

Math+X injects into the Investigator program Simons’ keen interest in the power of mixing and matching disciplines, in particular applying mathematical principles to other fields. This is especially relevant in many areas of study where the ability to process massive amounts of data is becoming integral. The foundation has other programs that apply quantitative approaches to areas of study like autism, brain science, and marine microbiology. 

Simons is certainly an interesting player, but the leveraging of data to solve problems, and interdisciplinary research, are two ripe areas for science philanthropy these days. Daubechies’ career is certainly a testament to the kind of ripples that can happen when that kind of serendipity works, and just the kind of impact a philanthropist would love to fund.