Get to know Dr Denis Patterson who recently joined our Department of Mathematical Sciences.
I’m an applied mathematician working on problems in mathematical biology. I grew up in a small town called Baltinglass in Ireland and later moved to Dublin to attend university. After completing my PhD at Dublin City University, I worked in the United States for several years, before recently joining the School of Mathematical Sciences at Durham.
I joined Durham in August 2023 as an Assistant Professor in Applied Mathematics. In addition to my research, I am developing and teaching a new 4th year/master’s level course called Advanced Mathematical Biology.
My primary interest is modelling the dynamics and stability of forest-savanna ecosystems in the tropics. I build mathematical models that describe how vegetation evolves over time and how it will respond to disturbances, like changes in weather patterns. The goal of this work is to understand how resilient forests and savannas, which typically border one another, are to environmental changes. I also work on mathematical modelling of malaria to understand optimal vaccination strategies and parasite evolution. Although these topics are very distinct, I use mathematical tools from stochastic analysis and dynamical systems to tackle both problems.
The problems I work on are of broad societal relevance but also require innovative mathematical techniques to address. For some, the interest is going to be more focused on the specific insights that mathematical modelling can generate, but the problems we tackle often generate new theory and mathematical developments that are of independent interest. Personally, I really enjoy this interplay between theory and applications where new theory is driven by pressing applied challenges.
We all have a huge stake in how climate change impacts the vast tracts of vegetation found in the tropics. Forests store many times more carbon than savannas, given the same area covered, so large-scale deforestation is a clear threat to climatic stability. On the other hand, savannas are biodiversity rich ecosystems supporting very different species to those found in forests. Thus, it is important to have a detailed understanding of how both ecosystems will respond to climate change to aid in management and conservation efforts. Our understanding of the determinants of savanna/forest distributions is evolving with more access to relevant data, particularly higher quality satellite data. However, we cannot carry out ecosystem-scale experiments to verify our theories and so mathematical modelling will continue to play a crucial role as work towards a comprehensive theory of forest-savanna distributions.
I hope to extend some of my existing work on forest-savanna dynamics to incorporate additional real-world processes such as herbivores and rainfall seasonality. There is always a trade-off in mathematical modelling between tractability and realism, so it will be an interesting challenge to extend our existing models while retaining interpretability. I’m also working to apply some of our insights on stability of vegetation systems to other ecosystems, such as northern boreal forests.
I enjoy reading or watching science fiction in my spare time. “The Expanse” is one my favourite recent sci-fi series (to read or watch) and “Battlestar Galactica” (2004) is my favourite series overall. I’ve also enjoyed some of the recent adaptations of influential classic sci-fi works like Asimov’s “Foundation series” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune”.