Mathematician Heather Harrington is new director at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics

New Dresden Max Planck Institute director develops mathematical approaches to study complex biological systems.

Dr. Heather Harrington, Photo: Z Goriely

Heather Harrington will join the team of directors at the Max Planck Institute (MPI-CBG) in Dresden. In her position, she will also lead the interinstitutional Center for Systems Biology Dresden (CSBD) together with partners from the Technical University Dresden and the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems. She was also appointed as honorary professor at the Faculty of Mathematics at the TU Dresden. Her vision is to create new mathematical approaches to glean additional information about living systems and understand how they self-organize across scales. She is also a Professor of Mathematics at the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford, UK, and a Fellow of St John’s College Oxford.

“We are thrilled that Heather Harrington decided to join our community as a new director,” says Anne Grapin-Botton, the Managing Director of the MPI-CBG. “We are able to collect a lot of measurements and information on biological systems, and Heather’s mathematical approach will be crucial to extracting structure and meaning from this information. Heather is an extremely talented mathematician who will undoubtedly find new ways to solve current and future challenges in biology, hence our enthusiasm.”

“I am delighted to join the Max Planck Society and to be a director at the MPI-CBG and the CSBD,” says Heather Harrington. “We will be creating new mathematical frameworks to model and analyze the detailed and multi-dimensional data we generated in modern biology. We will develop and apply techniques from nonlinear algebra to analyze complex spatio-temporal systems and from computational topology to study the shape and structure of high-dimensional data. I’m excited to explore new opportunities to collaborate with researchers at the institute and the wider TU Dresden and Saxony research landscape.”

Heather’s group will develop mathematical approaches to understand biological systems on multiple scales, from genes to tissues. Given the abstract nature of mathematics, the methods Heather and her team will develop can be applied to many different systems and contexts. There is huge scope for understanding disease in a new light.

Heather always enjoyed the application of new mathematics to biological and medical questions. She says, “I have combined mathematical models with biological data throughout my career. And it is clear now that there is enormous untapped potential in understanding the shape and structure of biological data. By more formally characterizing the multi-scale and multi-dimensional relationships between different types of data, we can look towards a deeper understanding of organisms across multiple scales.”

Heather A. Harrington received her Ph.D. in 2010 from the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College London. After postdoctoral years at the Imperial College London and the Mathematical Institute at Oxford, she became an associate Professor and Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford in 2017, where she was promoted to Professor of Mathematics in 2020. She holds affiliations with St John’s College as a Research Fellow in Mathematics and the Sciences and the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics as an Associate Group Leader. Heather became a director at the MPI-CBG and the Center for Systems Biology Dresden in October 2023. Her research interests are applied algebra, dynamical systems, networks, topological data analysis, and systems biology. Her research group develops mathematical approaches to study problems in the natural and medical sciences. She has received several prestigious awards, such as the Whitehead Prize of the London Mathematical Society in 2018 or the Philip Leverhulme Prize in 2020, for advances in the analysis of noisy data. She was a co-winner of the 2019 Adams Prize from the University of Cambridge.

Media Contact MPI-CBG:
Katrin Boes
+49 (0) 351 210-2080

Further Information:
Prof. Heather Harrington