Undergraduate Research Wins Award

Abby Williams presents award winning SRE poster.

A team of undergraduate researchers from the NIMBioS 2019 Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) program received a best poster award this month at the 15th annual Regional Mathematics and Statistics Conference at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Abby Williams, a junior in mathematics at Salem College, presented the poster at the conference.

“Impact of Climate Change on the Distribution of Buzz Pollinators” presents research that Williams and her REU team conducted at NIMBioS. The research uses ecological niche modeling to predict the potential habitat suitability for 16 different bee species native to North America that buzz pollinates tomatoes, based on preserved specimen data and climate scenarios of varying carbon emissions. The main map on the poster depicts the change in habitat suitability that should occur by the year 2050 under a high emissions scenario. These regions of habitat loss were compared to areas that are currently known to produce a substantial amount of tomatoes. The research found that high production areas, such as around Indiana and Ohio, are predicted to lose significant habitat suitability for buzz pollinators, which would in turn negatively impact tomato crop yield.

Other group members on the REU project were Ellie Lochner, a math student at the University of Wisconsin, and Brandyn Ruiz, a statistics and applied math student at Arizona State University. Mentors were NIMBioS postdoc Luis Carrasco; Mona Papeş, who directs the Spatial Analysis Lab at NIMBioS and is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at UT; and NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator Greg Wiggins.

The NIMBioS REU program helped Williams really hone her research skills and interests.

“I really enjoyed learning about ecological niche modeling and how to use R and ArcGIS. I use R almost every day now,” she said.

For Williams, meeting different people from diverse backgrounds was the best part of the REU program.

“The connections and friends that I made last summer introduced me to a world of possibilities, and I cannot wait to explore what that world has to offer,” she said.

Congratulations Team!

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Girls Dig STEM at NIMBioS

Suzanne Lenhart (center) leads a building triangles exercise.
Virginia Dale from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Fifty middle school girls dug deep into science-technology-engineering-and-math at NIMBioS on Saturday with the Expanding Your Horizons Network STEM Activity Day.

The event was organized by Suzanne Lenhart and Greg Wiggins at NIMBioS, in consultation with Judith Iriate-Gross from Middle Tennessee State University.

Women faculty and staff from the University of Tennessee led hands-on activities, from “Squishing Specimens for Science” to “Powering VOLt City.” They were Virginia Dale from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Jessica Budke and Liz Derryberry from Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Anne Skutnik from Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Audra Hinson from Microbiology, and LenhartJoan Lind, and Marie Jameson from Mathematics.

The Expanding Your Horizons Network promotes the continuing development in mathematics and science of all people, with particular emphasis on the needs of women and girls.

The day was co-sponsored by the Knoxville Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

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Networking? New Software Studies the Ecological Kind

Meeting 4 of the Ecological Network Dynamics Working Group: (L to R) Front: Mathilde Besson, Cecilia Diaz Castelazo, Mathias Pires, Laura Burkle, Jimmy O’Donnell; Rear: Justin Yeakel, Marcus Aloizio Martinez de Aguiar, David Hembry, Erica Newman, Ulrich Mueller.

The activities of the Ecological Network Dynamics Working Group, which concluded this year, have culminated in a new R software package, now available, for analyzing the properties of large-scale ecological networks.

EcoNetGen constructs and samples networks with predetermined topologies including network size and structure. The networks can represent communities varying in size and types of interactions. The software gives its users the ability to simulate the complete underlying structure of a network and compare it to the size and structure of a sampled network.

Working Group members co-authored a paper, recently published in PeerJ, detailing use of the software package.

In “Revealing biases in the sampling of ecological interaction networks,” the study simulates large networks of species interactions and then subsamples from the simulations to simulate field sampling. The study is able then “to determine what biases exist in our study of network structure, and what aspects of real ecological networks slip through the cracks in empirical studies,” writes co-author David Hembry.

Several recommendations are made for empirical field ecologists to use in their projects that aim to characterize large species interaction networks.

The Working Group, which met four times at NIMBioS since June 2015, included field biologists, theoreticians and computational biologists. Co-organizers were David Hembry (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ. of Arizona); Dominique Gravel (Biology, Univ. de Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada); Paulo Guimaraes Jr. (Ecology, Univ. of Sao Paulo (USP), Brazil); and James O’Donnell (School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, Univ. of Washington, Seattle).

Citation: de Aguiar et al. 2019. Revealing biases in the sampling of ecological interaction networks. PeerJ. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.7566

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Top of Class: Quantitative Bioscience at UT

As a service to the university, NIMBioS has unveiled a new Quantitative Bioscience website showcasing the multiple routes to success for graduate education in quantitative bioscience at the University of Tennessee.

With 20 different research areas to explore, UT has become a world-leader in quantitative bioscience disciplines. The website highlights each of these areas.

The site describes in detail the various pathways for developing a graduate program in quantitative bioscience and includes options within the Division of Biology, Department of Mathematics, UT-ORNL Graduate School of Genome Science and Technology, Tickle College of Engineering, Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education and UT’s Institute of Agriculture. 

UT has a long history as one of the world’s largest collections of faculty in quantitative bioscience, located in a variety of departments and research labs across campus. The site includes a list of 60 UT faculty who are associated with quantitative bioscience research.

To provide evidence of the success of quantitative bioscience education at UT, another page showcases student success stories, with a listing of the PhD students who have obtained their degrees under the mentorship of faculty affiliated with quantitative bioscience, along with their position following graduation, whether in academia, government or industry.

Convergence research across mathematics, statistics, computational and data science is building new frameworks and novel ways for problem solving in the life sciences. Over the past decade, NIMBioS has fostered these efforts to develop cutting-edge, cross-disciplinary collaborative connections that address the vast array of challenging questions at the interface of the quantitative and life sciences.

For more information, visit www.nimbios.org/qb. A brochure is also available.

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Saving Amphibians, One Tadpole at a Time

A collaboration with former NIMBioS postdocs Angela Peace and Suzanne O’Regan, along with UT’s Matt Gray, has culminated in a new study in Ecological Modeling that investigates the dynamics of a highly virulent ranavirus and helps to illustrate its threat to biodiversity in North America.

Globally emerging pathogens that affect amphibians, reptiles and fish, ranaviruses have caused catastrophic die-offs of thousands of larval wood frogs. In some cases, population projection models suggest that ranaviruses can cause outright amphibian extinction.

Using a highly virulent chimeric ranavirus recently discovered at a bullfrog farm in southern Georgia, the researchers combined experiments and disease modeling to examine the potential consequences of the ranavirus on wood frog tadpoles.

The disease models included multiple transmission pathways—direct contact, environmental transmission via pathogens in the water, and transmission via feeding on dead individuals. A novel modeling approach, the study also incorporated multiple host infection stages and analyzed effects as the disease progressed, which appeared to strengthen the models’ predictions.

The model simulations predicted 100% mortality of a wood frog tadpole population in two weeks.

The authors recommend that surveillance for the pathogen occur at a minimum in the river watershed, and that disease management strategies should be prioritize spatial containment of the pathogen.

All transmission pathways in the study had high invasion potential and so targeting only one transmission pathway is unlikely to be effective, the authors wrote.

Citation: Peace A et al. 2019. A highly invasive chimeric ranavirus can decimate tadpole populations rapidly through multiple transmission pathways. Ecological Modelling 410: 108777. 

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NISER Makes a Move

The National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research (NISER), which was established as a part of NIMBioS in 2016, is now a core operation of the University of Tennessee’s lead research administration unit, the Office of Research & Engagement (ORE). The move was official July 1, 2019.

Through the support of NIMBioS, NISER Director Pam Bishop has grown NISER into a world-class STEM evaluation center, now with a staff of three research associates.

With expertise in evaluation theory, design and implementation, NISER is capable of evaluating large-scale projects to optimize decision-making and to untangle the complexity of program dynamics in order to understand how and why a project meets or fails to meet its objectives.

Under ORE, NISER will continue its mission to support STEM-related education and research and expand its portfolio to work with ORE to evaluate UT’s research enterprise.

NISER’s success and its move to be part of ORE enhances UT’s reputation as one of the nation’s leading universities providing high quality program evaluation and builds on the highly interdisciplinary approach to science and education fostered by NIMBioS.

Thus far, 23 projects have been awarded to NISER supported by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, US Department of Agriculture, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and others. This includes several major University of Tennessee STEM-related projects: the NIH-funded Program for Excellence & Equity in Research (PEER) and Possibilities in Post-Secondary Education in Science (PiPES); and the NSF-funded Adaptations for a Sustainable Climate of Excellence and Diversity (ASCEND), VolsTeach for Appalachia, and Appalachian Students Promoting the Integration of Research in Education (ASPIRE).

Additionally, NISER currently partners with grant-funded projects across the country to conduct its evaluations, to include the University of Pittsburgh, The College of William and Mary, Radford University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, The University of Memphis, and The Georgia Institute of Technology.

Three current research projects with scholarly articles in preparation are the NSF-funded Quantitative Biology Education and Synthesis project on biology faculty use of open educational resources; the NIH-funded PiPES project on undergraduate and graduate student journaling in STEM-based K-12 programs; and an NSF-funded project on the BioCalculus Concept Instrument.

For more information on how to engage NISER with your evaluation project, contact Pam Bishop at pbaird@utk.edu or (865) 974-9348

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Humans Added to Ecology Equation

Symposium speakers were (l to r) Brian Beckage (University of Vermont), Nina Fefferman (UT), Madhur Anand (University of Guelph), Erle Ellis (University of Maryland Baltimore County), Christina Romagosa (University of Florida, Simon Levin (Princeton University), and moderator Louis Gross (UT).

The first ever Ecological Society of America Symposium on integrating human behavior into theoretical ecology was held at this year’s ESA Annual Meeting, courtesy of NIMBioS and DySoC.

NIMBioS and DySoC faculty organized the symposium, titled “Theory in Ecology: Adding Humans to the Equation,” which drew about 150 attendees.

The Symposium focused on building ecological theory that incorporates human actions and goes beyond the mostly static approach to human impacts of natural systems that has characterized models developed to date.

Six speakers gave talks on topics ranging from linking human behavior to climate system models, sociocultural evolution, and public goods and collective action.

One of the speakers was NIMBioS Associate Director and DySoC Faculty Member Nina Fefferman. Her presentation on “Patients as patches: Ecological challenges from the epidemiology of healthcare environments” aimed to broaden the discussion to include the unique challenges posed in human healthcare settings.

NIMBioS Director Louis Gross moderated a lively, open discussion following the presentations.

The 11th Annual ESA Meeting was held Aug. 11-16 in Louisville, KY. The Symposium was held on Aug. 13.

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STEM Adventures for Middle School Girls

In nationwide assessments of technology and engineering skills, middle school girls on average outperform boys, and three-quarters of elementary school girls say they’re interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math. But by high school, interest wanes, to just 11%. Women comprise only a quarter of the STEM workforce.

Various initiatives are underway across the country to extend the eagerness and enthusiasm for the STEM disciplines of the younger years, and Adventures in STEM Camp for middle school girls is one of them.

Although it only runs for one week each summer, the camp packs a lot into every day. Last week wrapped up the 2019 camp, which is hosted by NIMBioS and CURENT, an NSF-supported engineering center at UT

View the photo album here!

Through hands-on activities, participants learn how STEM-related concepts apply to a vast range of areas, such as epidemiology, renewable energy, biodiversity, and manufacturing. This year’s camp included computer programming, 3D printing, electric circuitry, geometry, veterinary science, and more. Campers toured the UT Veterinary Hospital and Analysis and Management Services Corporation in Knoxville. They also interviewed women mathematicians, scientists and engineers to find out about careers in STEM.

Families were invited on the last day to watch the girls present their posters about the various topics that the girls learned during the camp.

Thanks to the many CURENT and NIMBioS staff, postdocs, graduate students, and other volunteers that help make this camp possible.

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Learning from Failures: Lemon Labs, NIMBioS Partner

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That’s the proverbial expression driving new data science workshops organized by NIMBioS and the University of Arizona through a National Science Foundation TRIPODS+X award.

The first of two Lemon Labs workshops was held last week at UA’s Biosphere 2 with the goal to develop “10 Simple Rules” researchers should follow in data science collaboration. The three-day workshop focused on the challenges that arise in transdisciplinary teams and the strategies that have worked for meeting those challenges. The 30 participants came from a variety of data-driven disciplines, particularly in astronomy and earth sciences.

The second gathering, dubbed the Lemonade Labs workshop, will be held next spring at NIMBioS with the goal to build upon the ideas and strategies devised from the first workshop in order to improve productivity for data science teams.

“We want to encourage researchers to celebrate the times when things didn’t go quite as planned, and then to build upon the lessons learned from those trials, to improve processes going forward,” said workshop co-organizer Nirav Merchant in a UA blog post about the project. Merchant directs Data7, the UA’s Data Science Institute.

The four co-principal investigators of the “TRIPODS+X:VIS: Data Science Pathways for a Vibrant TRIPODS Commons at Scale” award are Merchant, Faryad Darabi Sahneh and Stephen Kobourov, also of UA, and Monica Papeş, who directs the Spatial Analysis Lab at NIMBioS.

The UA is one of twelve recipients of the NSF’s TRIPODS (Transdisciplinary Research in the Principles of Data Science) initiative, which brings together researchers in statistics, mathematics and theoretical computer science with the goal to develop the theoretical foundations of data science through integrated research and training activities focused on core algorithmic, mathematical, and statistical principles.

Full details about the first workshop including the NSF proposal can be found here.

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In Their Own Words: Spotlight on Graduate Research

NIMBioS awarded $50,000 in scholarships to graduate students from across campus last month, and we’ve got them on video! Check out the recipients of the 2019 Graduate Awards in their video interviews and find out what they’re studying.

The awards support research and education in areas that align with the efforts of NIMBioS at the interface of the quantitative and life sciences as well as areas connected with the four NIMBioS-affiliated programs, which include the National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research, the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity, the Spatial Analysis Lab, and the Mathematical Modeling Consulting Center. The awards also support research and education that fosters new collaborations beyond the quantitative and life sciences. Full details on the awards program are available at http://www.nimbios.org/graduate_awards

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