Lisa Fauci is passionate about mathematics, and the signs were there from an early age. Now the Pendergraft Nola Lee Haynes Professor of Mathematics at Tulane University, Fauci recalls an older cousin giving her math problems to solve as a form of entertainment. She was in kindergarten at the time.
The Brooklyn, New York, native loved numbers so much that whenever anyone asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, it was always “math teacher.” In fact, Fauci still has a notebook from sixth grade proclaiming her intentions to teach math.
Fauci exceeded even her own lofty expectations, thanks to one of her advisers at Pace University in New York. Fauci was considering accounting when her adviser, Michael Bernkopf, steered her back towards math.
“He looked at my record from high school and he said, ‘Young lady, you should be a math major.’ In my junior year, he said, ‘I think you should go for your PhD.’ ”
She did just that, becoming a university professor specializing in numerical analysis, scientific computing, fluid dynamics and mathematical biology. She has risen through the ranks at Tulane, starting as an assistant professor in 1986 to being honored with an endowed professorship in 2008.
Her husband of 33 years, Victor Moll, works just one floor above her at Gibson Hall. He, too, is a mathematics professor, specializing in classical analysis, symbolic computation, special functions and number theory.
They joined the Tulane faculty together following doctoral studies at New York University and Moll’s one-year postdoc at Temple University.
“He got to NYU a year before I did, and did a postdoc at Temple while I finished my degree,” Fauci said. “Then we got job offers in a bunch of places. We didn’t realize how hard it was to get just one faculty job, much less two. But we were hot prospects at the time.”
Tulane won the couple over, as did the Crescent City. “We really liked the culture in New Orleans and thought it would be fun to be here for a year or two.”
That year or two turned into 33. During that time, they had two sons, Alexander Moll, now a postdoc in mathematics at Northeastern University, and Stefan Moll, a jazz pianist who received his undergraduate degree in music from Tulane School of Liberal Arts in 2017.
As young parents with no support system in New Orleans, Fauci credits the Newcomb Child Care Center on Tulane’s uptown campus with providing them with the peace of mind to become successful scholars.
Knowing their sons were in good hands coupled with their love of New Orleans made it easier for them to commit to Tulane long past two years. Fauci — and Tulane — could not be more pleased with that decision.
“Professor Lisa Fauci is one of the stars of SSE (School of Science and Engineering),” said SSE Dean Kimberly Foster. “Not only is she an accomplished and decorated applied mathematician, but she is a devoted mentor for students and colleagues. Faculty like Lisa are what make Tulane a vibrant and special place where research, education and community intersect.”
Robin Forman, Tulane’s senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, who has taught mathematics at Harvard, MIT, Emory and other universities around the country and world, concurred.
“Lisa Fauci is universally recognized as a leader in her field. I first met Lisa and learned of her research shortly after she arrived at Tulane, and I have been following her progress for decades. Knowing she was on the faculty was one of many exciting elements that drew me to Tulane a few years ago. Having professors of her caliber on our faculty — scholars who are making transformative contributions to their disciplines, their professional communities and their campus — energizes the entire Tulane community and fuels the Tulane model of pioneering research aligned with deeply engaging, innovative teaching,” Forman said.
Fauci said she can’t think of a better, more stimulating environment than Tulane. “We are a small enough institution and flexible enough that even junior faculty can have an impact on curriculum, on initiatives and on interdisciplinary projects,” she said.
With collaborators Ricardo Cortez in math and Don Gaver in biomedical engineering, Fauci launched one of those projects in 2011, courtesy of a $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The multiyear project placed undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students as well as faculty from mathematics and biomedical engineering together in interdisciplinary research groups, with engineering students focused on applications and experiments and mathematics students on theory and computation.
The focus of their work was on the behavior of biological fluid systems and on developing mathematical models for biological systems ranging from the motion of single-celled organisms to the functioning of airways in human lungs.
A co-founder of the Tulane Center for Computational Science, Fauci and other scientists at Tulane teamed up with the University of Maryland to develop a computational model of a swimming fish that was the first to address the interaction of both internal and external forces on locomotion. The interdisciplinary research team simulated how the fish’s flexible body bends, depending on both the forces from the fluid moving around it as well as the muscles inside.
“It makes life that much more interesting to hear from other people, to hear different perspectives and to understand what the burning questions are,” Fauci said.
Fauci teaches all levels of mathematics but it is her graduate students and postdoc students who have made her proudest. While some are now in academia, many went to work in pharmaceutics, government labs or banking. They include Fauci’s first PhD student, Dean Bottino, who works for Takeda Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He received his doctorate from Tulane in 1996.
“He’s in the trenches using applied mathematics to help develop cancer drugs,” Fauci said.
Had it not been for Fauci, Bottino might have given up on mathematics. “I started Tulane intending to become an algebraic topologist,” Bottino said. “But after completing my written qualifiers, I began to wonder if a PhD in pure mathematics was really my path.”
He confided his doubts to his friend and karate mentor Kyriakos Papadapoulos, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Tulane, telling him that he was considering leaving the math department for biology, his other passion.
“He advised me instead to reach out to a ‘rising star’ in the math department who was working in mathematical biology: Lisa Fauci. I did so the next day, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was immediately fascinated with the work she was doing at the interface of mathematics, scientific computing and basic biology.”