Agnes Scott College

Nancy Kopell

Nancy Kopell

November 8, 1942 -

Nancy Jane Kopell was born in New York City on November 8, 1942. She received her B.S. in mathematics from Cornell University and her Ph.D. in 1967 from the University of California, Berkeley, with a dissertation on "Commuting diffeomorphisms" under the direction of Stephen Smale. Kopell held a C.L.E. Moore Instructorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1967 to 1969, then joined the faculty at Northeastern University. In 1978 she was promoted to full professor at Northeastern. Since 1986 she has been a professor of mathematics at Boston University. In 2009 she became the first woman at Boston University to be named a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor, one of the highest honors bestowed upon senior faculty members at that institution.

In July 1990, Nancy Kopell was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for a five-year period. At that time the Notices of the American Mathematical Society wrote about her:

Professor Kopell uses and develops methods of dynamical systems to attack problems of applied mathematics. She is especially interested in questions involving self-organization in physical and biological systems. With L.N.Howard, she has written a series of papers on pattern formation in oscillating chemical systems. Recently, with G.B.Ermentrout, she has been concerned with developing mathematics appropriate to analyzing neural networks that govern rhythmic motor activity, such as walking, swimming, and breathing. Such systems are, roughly, large collections of units, each of which is an oscillator or a close mathematical relative of an oscillator. The aim of the mathematics is to help sort out which properties of the units and their interactions have implications for the emergent properties of the networks. The techniques include extensions of invariant manifold theory, averaging theory, and geometric methods for singularly perturbed equations. The current work has led to the formation of a highly interactive group of physiologists and mathematicians, headed by Professor Kopell.

Kopell is currently co-director of the Center for BioDynamics (CBD) in the College of Engineering at Boston University. This multidisciplinary, interdepartmental center aims to train undergraduates, graduates, and postdoctoral fellows in leading techniques from dynamical systems theory and its applications to biology and engineering. She lists her current research interests as mathematical modeling of networks of neurons in vertebrates and invertebrates; special interest in networks having oscillatory behavior, such as those governing rhythmic motor behavior, thalamocortical and hippocampal networks; and use of mathematics to investigate how properties of cells and small networks affect the dynamics of the larger networks that contain them. James Collins, professor of biomedical engineering and co-founder of CBD with Kopell, says that "Nancy is one of the leading biomathematicians in the world. She began working on problems in mathematical biology long before it was fashionable, and based on her work mathematical biology has developed into a fertile and well recognized area of research."

Kopell was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1996. In April 2000, she was named Boston University's first William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of Mathematics and Science.

Profile from the AWM Noether Lectures.


  1. Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 1990, p1264.
  2. Nancy Kopell's home page at Boston University.
  3. Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter, July-August 2000, p5-6.
  4. Wood, Bonnie S. "Nancy Kopell," Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, Charlene Marrow and Teri Perl, Editors, Greenwood Press (1998), 98-102.
  5. Kopell, Nancy. "Biased Random Walk: A Brief Mathematical Biography", in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Anne Case and Anne Leggett, Editors, Princeton University Press (2005), 349-354.
  6. "Two More Warren Distinguished Professors Announced", BU Today Campus Life, June 25, 2009
  7. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  8. Author Profile at zbMath
  9. Mathematics Genealogy Project

Photo Credit: Fred Sway, BU Today, June 25, 2009.