College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at UMass Amherst Welcomes New Faculty Members

November 25, 1998

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AMHERST, Mass. - Researchers in biology, geosciences, and mathematics are among the faculty members joining the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at the University of Massachusetts this semester.

"These new members of the University community are each at the cutting edge of their field," said Linda Slakey, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. "Additionally, each is doing work that is in some sense interdisciplinary. This invigorates the intellectual dialogue that is so often a part of excellent research."

Ronald Adkins, assistant professor of biology, received his bachelor’s degree in zoology from Oklahoma State University, and earned a Ph.D. in genetics at Texas A&M University. Adkins conducts research in molecular evolution. "We study molecules to interpret things about the past," explained Adkins.

"This is useful in determining when species diverge, when genes duplicate, and in trying to date past events." Adkins has conducted DNA sequencing in order to determine how major groups of animals, such as rodents and primates, are related to one another. In an extension of his earlier work, Adkins is exploring the relationship between various mammal species by sequencing their genes, in an effort to learn which group is most closely related to primates.

Adkins has served as a National Science Foundation Predoctoral Fellow, as well as an Alfred P. Sloan Postdoctoral Fellow. He also held a postdoctoral fellowship in the Human Genetics Center of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. He will teach molecular systematics and evolution, along with additional biology courses.

Christopher Duncan, assistant professor of geosciences, earned his bachelor’s degree at Middlebury College in Vermont, and taught high school for several years before joining the computer industry, where he led software development in medical imaging systems. After earning his Ph.D. in geological sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., he did postdoctoral work at Cornell’s Theory Center before joining the UMass faculty.

Duncan investigates the interactions of plate tectonics, climate, and erosion by examining their effects on landforms, particularly in active mountain belts such as the Himalayas and the Andes. This work relies on geographical information systems (GIS), remote sensing, and sophisticated computer technology.

"The question we’re essentially asking is, ‘What does the shape of the landscape tell us about the processes at work in the evolution of the landscape?’" said Duncan. He offers this example: U-shaped valleys were generally created by glaciers, whereas V-shaped valleys have usually been cut by rivers, so identifying U-shaped valleys helps to estimate the glacial and climate conditions of the ice ages. Using high-tech tools, including satellite imagery and remote sensing, "allows us to study many areas that are inaccessible, or where field work would be prohibitively expensive," said Duncan, who teaches introductory and advanced courses in GIS and remote-sensing images analysis.

Jin Feng, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, earned his bachelor’s degree at Nanjing University in China. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he specialized in the field of probability. He then worked in the pharmaceutical industry for two years before joining the UMass faculty.

While working in industry, Feng created and used powerful mathematical tools in clinical research, employing sophisticated statistical methods to determine the effectiveness of certain drugs. "The field of mathematical statistics is going in the direction of solving concrete problems," said Feng, who teaches statistics.

Feng’s current major research interest is in an area of probability called "large deviations." This field focuses on pinpointing very small probabilities."For instance," offered Feng, "a phone company might want to know what the chances are that a certain part of the communications system would have to handle 10,000 calls in one second. We can model what the chances are, and then the company can make an intelligent, educated decision about whether to plan for the chance and accommodate it, or whether to take the risk that the situation will never occur."