Prof. Cang HUI
SARChI Chair in Mathematical & Physical BioSciences
Stellenbosch University & AIMS-South Africa

Hui Lab website:
Publications at Google Scholar

Do you want to apply mathematical skills and physical laws into solving puzzles in biology? Multiple postgraduate bursaries are now available at all levels as well as postdoctoral fellowships. Apply directly by contacting me via email.

Research Interests

My research group are working on the interface between mathematics and biology. Our interests lie in proposing models and theories for explaining emerging patterns in whole-organism biology, namely ecology. Ecology studies biodiversity in its variety and complexity. Due to their non-random nature, ecological processes are highly complex and adaptive. In order to quantify emergent ecological patterns and to investigate their hidden mechanisms, we need to rely on the simplicity of mathematical language. My recent research focus is to develop novel and apply available methods in mathematics, statistics and theoretical physics for unlocking the mechanisms behind realistic biological patterns, especially on how patterns related to the heterogeneity of species distributions, the hierarchy of biological networks and the size of adaptive traits, change with measurement, characteristic and organizational scales.

All biological patterns are scale dependent. This scale dependence creates problems in our inference, yet simultaneously providing opportunities for us to pry into the core of how nature assembles, organizes and functions. The problem of relating phenomena across scales is, arguably, the central problem in all natural sciences. Our research team aims, in the next 5 years and beyond, (i) to collect and sort a diverse array of biological patterns, (ii) to present the dominant parametric forms of how these patterns change across spatial and temporal scales, (iii) to detect the processes and mechanisms using mathematical models, and finally (iv) to probe the physical meaning of these scaling patterns. This research plan consists of three sections and covers the three main concepts of scaling patterns in biology – heterogeneity, hierarchy and size. Using scale as a thread, the proposed research weaves the kaleidoscope of biological patterns into a cohesive whole.

Nature never fails to amaze us. My continuous interest is to apply mathematics in the field of ecology for a deeper and more fundamental understanding of emerging ecological patterns. This will not only enhance our understanding in the natural sciences but also challenge the development of mathematics. Scientific research, from my perspective, endeavours to measure natural objects, to quantify patterns and structures from these measurements, and ultimately to identify the mechanisms governing these patterns and structures. This is equal to unveiling (i) what patterns exist in nature, (ii) how such patterns emerge, and (iii) why nature organizes itself in such a way. My research, thus, focuses in three specific areas. First, spatial and dynamic complexity caused by organism-environment feedback and biotic interactions (e.g., estimating rates of spread from different dispersal kernels, the consequence of niche construction, the origin of altruism via assortative interactions, and the adaptive dynamics of a co-evolving system). Second, the scaling patterns of biodiversity, with the emphasis on the profound effect of spatial scales on macroecological and community assemblage patterns (e.g., the occupancy frequency distribution and the non-randomness of species distribution and association). Finally, using biological invasions, as a natural experiment, to study how species sharpen their weaponries (invasiveness), how the native ecosystem responds to the intrusion (invasibility, resilience and stability), and how the novel ecosystem rebuilds its structure (e.g., functioning modules and nested architecture). These three areas of research all serve to clarify the interactions among patterns, scales and dynamics in the ever-evolving ecological system.

Representative works
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