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Mathematical Modeling and Dynamical Systems

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Let’s say you’re the type to write a letter, tuck it in a bottle, and toss it in the Gulf of Mexico. If you wanted to know the path your message would take, Erik Bollt is one of the few people who might be able to tell you.

Bollt can pull up a model on his computer screen, with red and yellow squiggles swirling and chasing each other around the coasts and out to sea. The applied mathematician helped create the animation based on his analysis of ocean models, with data that comes mostly from ships’ instruments.

Bollt’s work became especially interesting—and important—after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and scientists needed to predict what might happen with the oil spilling into the Gulf.

“If you want to know where the oil’s going to go, and where to stop it to protect the coast, this is what you need,” he says. “It’s a complex system. That’s my thing.”

Bollt is the W. Jon Harrington Professor of Mathematics at Clarkson, the first holder of a newly endowed chair that recognizes excellence in mathematics. But he thinks of himself more as a toolmaker.

“For me, scientists are the carpenters and mathematicians are the hammer-makers,” Bollt says. “I feel like when I start to work with a scientist, I’m the guy who opens my toolbox and says, ‘Let’s see what I’ve got for you.’”

The Clarkson faculty member has worked on predicting the growth of plankton blooms, the spread of disease, the flow of information on the Internet, and more.

But his curiosity doesn’t stop when he goes home at night. Bollt also conducts research on topics he holds near and dear to his heart—his hobbies. Namely, flying airplanes and riding bicycles.

Bollt is a licensed pilot and the proud new owner of a Diamond DA40 four-seater airplane. He’s also a pretty accomplished cyclist, having ridden a bicycle he actually designed himself to victory in two road races just last summer. He definitely gets around.

“I fly out the airport gate, land, do the race, hopefully win, bike back to the airport and fly home,” he says, with a big smile on his face. “At 5,000 feet over Potsdam, you can see Ottawa and Montreal. You feel like nothing’s far.”

Recently, Bollt began to look into engineering problems in aeroelasticity, specifically how much airplane wings can safely flutter.

He’s also applied his math skills to a different kind of speed, analyzing human gait and balance to learn more about how our bodies work in long biking sessions and runs. After befriending a physiologist who works as a coach for USA Cycling, Bollt began to analyze data from athletes of all kinds who came into the doctor’s lab and worked out on exercise bikes or treadmills.

“If you’re riding along on a flat road, it feels in your body like you’re going nice and steady, but if you look at the data it’s actually erratic, in terms of physical output. Steady isn’t steady, as it turns out,” he explains. “It’s like your house heater; it turns itself on full blast until it reaches the temperature you want, and then it powers down until it falls again.”

Bollt is especially interested in how runners with prosthetic limbs can learn to walk with a normal gait, and how different factors affect efficiency.

Meanwhile, he continues to work with Clarkson colleagues in biology, physics and engineering.

“Somewhere, somebody’s got to be interpreting the data. That’s me,” Bollt says. “That’s what I like about Clarkson: People who work well with others tend to do really well here.”

Erik Bollt

Erik M. Bollt
W. Jon Harrington Professor of Mathematics