Nina Fefferman is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics. Employing a mathematical perspective on biology, Fefferman studies everything from disease in populations to the radicalization of grassroots organizations.
She came to Knoxville almost three years ago to work with the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS). In such a niche field, Fefferman was drawn to the prospect of working closely with others in her discipline.
“Mathematical biology is sort of a specific subspecialty, and there’s only a couple of places in the country that really have more than one or two people,” Fefferman said. “We’re easily 20 deep in mathematical biologists, so it’s amazing.”
Why this field?
Fefferman completed her bachelor’s degree at Princeton University and her master’s degree at Rutgers University.
While teaching high school in Boston, Fefferman met biologist J. Michael Reed of Tufts University, who went on to become her advisor while she earned a PhD in biology.
What drew her toward academia was the synergy between researchers, something that would go on to shape her professional life at UT: “Each field in academia tends to have its own sort of social culture, and it turns out that I really love the social culture of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.”
Fefferman’s hobbies and interests are eclectic. A near-encyclopedic knowledge of historical weaponry and fighting styles commingles with philosophical theories of heroism in comic books. She also finds time to sew, a hobby she developed as a young child. And she travels extensively.
“I think what I love [about sewing] is that it’s a blending of artistic expression and very precise engineering and mathematics,” she said. “It’s all of the things that I love. It’s the mathematical precision of logic, it’s the aesthetics of beauty, and it’s the sentiment of a very personal human aesthetic and presentation of which portion of themselves they want to highlight to the world.”
If she didn’t do this . . .
“There are lots of things I could imagine I would love doing, but I’m so naïve about them that I’m not sure what the lived daily activity would look like,” she said. “There was a time for a few years where I worked as an arms trainer for Renaissance festivals and theaters. That was awesome.”
Favorite spot on campus
Fefferman’s favorite part of campus is the obscure dilapidated concrete staircase between the Nielsen Physics Building and the Hesler Biology Building. The stairway connects the hidden concrete passages behind Neyland Stadium to the manicured lawns and picturesque buildings of the Hill.
“You’re coming up from the back of the stadium, and it’s a parking lot. It’s not a particularly beautiful part of campus at the base of the stairs, but the stairs themselves feel like this ascension into the ivory tower.”