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Game theory, evolution and the 'ecology of fear'

2009 Researcher of the Year

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biologist Joel Brown, winner of the Researcher of the Year Award
Joel Brown, named Researcher of the Year in basic life sciences. “What drives me is curiosity,” he says. “I want to know.”

Photo: Kathryn Marchetti

Now in its second year, the Researcher of the Year Award highlights the accomplishments of UIC scientists. The $3,500 prize goes to researchers in four categories: basic life sciences, clinical sciences, natural sciences and engineering, and social sciences and the humanities.

Joel Brown is an evolutionary ecologist who can study animal behavior from the “dismal” scientific perspective.

For a time, as an undergraduate at Pomona College, he was an economics major.

“I loved that you could make assumptions about human behavior, then use microeconomic theory to predict behavior of whole systems,” says Brown, professor of biological sciences.

Brown’s environmental interests began as a boyhood passion. He lived for several years in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where his surgeon father and nurse mother — both bush pilots — did missionary work.

College was an eclectic romp for Brown, who won a physics prize his freshman year but planned to major in chemistry for the promise of producing dazzling pyrotechnics.

He dropped chemistry after discovering the organic element too mundane for his tastes. Economics lost value when Brown realized he could never work a job that required a daily suit-and-tie regimen.

But his career took direction with a zoology department summer job that let him drive a pickup off road through the San Gabriel Mountains of California, collecting samples.

“I realized it was exactly what I wanted to do, and I got paid for it,” Brown says.

As a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, Brown applied his economics knowledge to the study of animal ecology and evolution. He worked with an aerospace engineering professor named Thomas Vincent, an expert on a mathematical tool called game theory. Together they developed a new scientific tool, collaborating until Vincent’s death last October.

Brown says they realized animal foraging was often resolved as a game between predator and prey.

“More and more, my research has been on the foraging games going on between animals,” Brown says.

Since joining the UIC faculty in 1987, Brown has refined his use of game theory to develop a widely cited model he calls the “ecology of fear.” In his research, he uses the fear responses of prey species to study the ecology of both prey and predator.

He has also become an authority on urban ecology, frequently quoted in the news on the behavior of animals that have adapted to — or conflicted with — urban sprawl.

Recently, his research has turned to studying cancer as an evolutionary — rather than genetic — disease.

“Cancer is its own evolving organism that adapts,” Brown says. “The human body becomes cancer’s Planet Earth — the environment where the cell evolves, avoiding the hazards of the immune system and where it forages for nutrients.”

A prolific writer with more than 150 publications to his credit, including two books, Brown has conducted research in more than 20 countries. His UIC grant-supported research exceeds $2.5 million.

“I work much, much better when collaborating with others,” he says. “They’re the people from whom I’ve learned. It’s humbling to belong to this fraternity and sorority of scientists.”

Brown says he continues to learn whatever and wherever he can, changing and expanding his world view as his quest for knowledge grows.

“What drives me is curiosity,” he says. “I want to know.”


Other Researcher of the Year winners

Judith Cook: fighting myths, misperceptions about mental illness

Luke Hanley: Using ingenuity to get grants, improve technology

Timothy Shanahan: pushing for literacy through public policy

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