NIMBioS Welcomes New Researchers

(From left) Nels Johnson, Megan Rua, Quentin Johnson

(From left) Nels Johnson, Megan Rúa, Quentin Johnson

We’re excited to announce our new postdoctoral and sabbatical fellows who will bring their research to NIMBioS this summer and fall.

New postdoctoral fellows include:

Nels Johnson joins NIMBioS in June following a postdoctoral fellowship at Colorado State Univ. where he has been focused on the Great Plains Methane project investigating communities of methane consuming soil bacteria. At NIMBioS, Johnson will develop new, flexible community models for addressing the impact that diversity and community structure have on ecosystem function and for better understanding the biodiversity of communities across environmental gradients and traits.

Quentin Johnson joins NIMBioS in August after completing his Ph.D. in Life Science/Genome Science and Technology at the Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville. His project centers on developing a high-throughput mathematical and computational model to identify allostery and the mechanism by which the allosteric signal is initiated and propagated in the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor and retinoid X receptor complex, which are proteins involved in preventing growth of cancer cells.

Megan Rúa is currently an NSF postdoctoral research fellow in biology at the Univ. of Mississippi where she is conducting a 1200 seedling experiment. Starting in August, her research at NIMBioS will focus on using selective source analysis (SSA) to estimate selection due to interspecific interactions and other sources and will also involve employing meta-analysis in conjunction with SSA to examine these relationships across a broad array of hosts and their mycorrhiza.

New sabbatical fellows are as follows:

Charles Price, an assistant professor of plant biology at the Univ. of Western Australia, will work on a project to understand the physical drivers of allometric patterns in trees. Price begins his fellowship in June.

Richard Schugart, an assistant professor of mathematics at Western Kentucky Univ., begins his fellowship in August to investigate optimal treatment protocols for a bacterial infection of a wound using oxygen therapy.

And joining NIMBioS in February 2016 as a sabbatical fellow is Glenn Ledder, a professor of mathematics at the Univ. of Nebraska-Lincoln, whose project involves dynamic energy budget modeling and multi-component systems.

The next deadline for applying for a postdoctoral fellowship and a sabbatical fellowship is September 1.


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Workshop to Support Research Collaboration Between Junior and Senior Women


Yet another barrier facing women in academia is that senior women faculty are less likely to collaborate with junior women. A study in Current Biology found evidence for this in the field of psychology, a field getting very close to gender parity. NIMBioS’ Research Collaboration Workshop for Women in the Mathematical Biology, coming in June, will support the efforts of a group of women committed to help change this.

Eight senior women researchers in math and biology will lead four teams of  four to five women postdocs, junior faculty, and advanced graduate students on projects that are expected to continue after the workshop and lead to a joint publication.

Seventy-five researchers in mathematics and biology applied to the workshop, showing there is a great demand for opportunities like this one. Only 18 applicants were selected, the size limited to encourage the quality of the interactions among the participants.

Some of the collaborations will be international, with participants from Europe and Asia.

The research projects include:

The workshop structure, with leaders, projects and working groups planned in advance, is intended to be bi-directional, such that senior women will meet, mentor, and collaborate with the brightest young women in their field on a part of their research agenda of their choosing, and junior women (tenure track faculty, post-docs and advanced graduate students) will develop their network of colleagues and supporters and encounter important new research areas to work in, thereby improving their chances for successful research careers.

The format of this workshop was modeled after the highly successful WhAM! Research Collaboration Workshop for Women in Applied Mathematics held at the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) in September 2013.


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NIMBioS Undergrads – Where are They Now?

Just a few of the graduate institutions, companies, and scholarships our past REU and SRE students have mentioned so far.

Just a few of the graduate institutions, companies, and scholarships our past REU and SRE students have mentioned so far.


Former SRE Nicole Bender conducts penguin consensus work in Antarctica as a part of her doctoral work at Stony Brook Univ.

Their lives once converged here for a summer research experience at NIMBioS, but now our undergraduate alumni study pipets at Stony Brook University, viral evolution at UCLA, and computational ecology at the University of Oregon, among many other experiences. NIMBioS has recently begun to reach out to the alumni of our undergraduate research experience programs, now called the Summer Research Experiences (SRE) program, to find out their post-college graduation plans and endeavors.

“I can say that the REU experience has greatly contributed to a successful application and start at the University of Oxford,” wrote 2012 REU alumna Annet Westhoek, who is currently pursuing her PhD in Systems Biology at the University of Oxford where she models the interactions between legumes and their nitrogen-fixing symbionts.

John Shamshoian, 2014 SRE alumnus, plans to start a PhD program in biostatistics at UCLA in the fall. “I’m proud to say NIMBioS’ SRE program helped make this possible and will ease the transition to grad school having done some research already.”

“Things are going well,” wrote Kiersten Utsey, 2013 REU alumna, now working on her PhD in Math Biology at the University of Utah, “and my experience at NIMBioS definitely helped prepare me for graduate school!”

With six cohorts of REU/REV/SRE students since 2009 and many long since graduated, catching up with all 115 of them is a considerable challenge. If you are one of our alumni reading this, we want to hear from you! Let us know what you’re up to — whether you are in graduate school, working, backpacking Central America or writing your memoir, please drop a note to Kelly (Moran) Sturner at

We’re fortunate to have worked with such great students over the years, and it’s always extra nice to feel the appreciation back. Many students sent kind words when they reported their activities to us. Brittany Boribong, 2014 REU alumna, on her fall plans to start a PhD program at Virginia Tech in Genetics, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, wrote, “I couldn’t have done this without … everyone at NIMBioS.”

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Fractals and Fruit Flies Win Awards at Regional Science Fair

A cardboard cutout advertising the Southern Appalachian Science & Engineering Fair

A cardboard cutout advertising the Southern Appalachian Science & Engineering Fair

NIMBioS awarded its annual prizes for Research at the Interface of Mathematics and Biology last month to budding young scientists and mathematicians at the Southern Appalachian Science & Engineering Fair. The junior prize went to Piper Halcrow and Olivia Ricche from St. Mary’s Catholic School, the team responsible for “Mutant vs. Wild: Who Will Survive.” Their project was a careful analysis of mutant and wild fruit fly responses to different concentrations of organic compounds. Hunter Vallejos of Oak Ridge High School took home the senior prize for his project: “1/f Power Spectra and Fractals in the Heart” in which he investigated different kinds of noise in electrocardiogram signal data.


NIMBioS Graduate Assistant Jason Bintz and Education & Outreach Intern Virginia Parkman assisted with the judging. Awardees received certificates and cash prizes.

"Mutant vs. Wild: Who Will Survive" received the Junior NIMBioS Prize at the science fair.

“Mutant vs. Wild: Who Will Survive” received the Junior NIMBioS Prize at the science fair.

NIMBioS also assisted in judging two other special awards: the Association of Women in Science (AWIS) award and the Mu Alpha Theta Math Honor Society award. The AWIS award went to Pittman Center Elementary student Alexis Valentine for her project, “Bat Chat (Using Echolocation to Determine White Nose Syndrome Effects).” The Mu Alpha Theta award also went to Hunter Vallejos.


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NIMBioS Postdocs Join the Mammal March Madness Fun!

NIMBioS Postdocs and staff imitate the animal they chose to win while displaying their March Mammal Madness 2015 brackets

Some of the more competitive “NIMBiods” imitate the animal they chose to win while displaying their March Mammal Madness 2015 brackets

NIMBioS postdoctoral fellows and staff participated in the March Mammal Madness this year, a wildly popular scientific take on the NCAA College Basketball March Madness Championship Tournament. In March Mammal Madness, mammals, and even some mythical creatures, compete in computer simulated rounds for the title of champion.

As the March Mammal Madness website explains, “battle outcome is a function of the two species’ attributes within the battle environment. Attributes considered in calculating battle outcome include temperament, weaponry, armor, body mass, fight style, and other fun facts that are relevant to the outcome. These are one on one- head to head combat situations- um except for the mythical mammals that have multiple heads. Some random error has been introduced into calculating battle outcome & the amount of that error is scaled to the disparity in rankings between combatants.”

This year’s victor was the Sumatran Rhino after a fierce final battle with the Dwarf Mongoose. Hmm, guess that was Goliath vs. Cuteness.

The action was followed closely on Twitter. #2015MMM

Unfortunately, while none of the NIMBioS participants was successful in picking the winner, all had a blast following the rounds and engaging in some healthy competition (and trash talk) along the way.

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Congratulations to the New Participants of SRE 2015!

2014 SRE students are interviewed about their research by the media.

2014 SRE students are interviewed about their research by the media.

NIMBioS is pleased to announce the 16 participants selected for its highly competitive 2015 Summer Research Experience (SRE) program for undergraduates and teachers. Participants were selected from a pool of more than 150 applicants. The program runs for eight weeks, from June 8-July 31. Participants will come to NIMBioS on the Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus to work in teams with NIMBioS postdocs and UT faculty on research at the interface of mathematics and biology.

2015 SRE participants and their assigned team projects are as follows:

Ashley Dantzler (Mathematics, Univ. of Tennessee, Chattanooga); Margaux Hujoel (Mathematics & Computational Biology, Harvey Mudd College); Virginia Parkman (Mathematics, Univ. of Tennessee); and Ayana Wild (Computer Science & Mathematics, Tennessee State Univ.) will work on a project to model canine distemper.

Talon Johnson (Mathematics, Morehouse College); Januka Khanal (Biology, Southeastern Univ.); Michael Rohly (Mathematics & Biology, Columbus State Univ.); and Nick Sirek (Honors Biology & Geology Teacher, L&N STEM Academy, Knoxville, TN) will explore stressors in host-pathogen interactions.

Ashish Gauli (Biology, Fisk Univ.); Nathan Wikle (Mathematics, Truman State Univ.); and Ryan Yan (Mathematical Biology, College of William and Mary) will investigate invasive species movements through global shipping routes.

Mariel Bedell (Biological Sciences, Carnegie Mellon Univ.); Yilin Lin (Applied Mathematics, Emory Univ.); and Emmie Melendez (Mathematics, Univ. of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez) will model the distribution of fluid pressure in the kidney.

Riley Mummah (Biology, Statistics & Mathematics, The Pennsylvania State Univ.); Diya Sashidhar (Applied Mathematics, North Carolina State Univ.); and Jinchuan Wei (Science, Univ. of Minnesota, Twin Cities) will develop mathematical models of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in mice.


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Bat Monitoring Working Group Receives ‘Wings Across the Americas’ Award

The North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) working group was hosted by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis in Knoxville, Tenn., to design a program for coordinated bat monitoring across North America. Front row: (L to R) Tushar Kansal, Laura Ellison, Susan Loeb, Tom Rodhouse, Kathi Irvine, Subhash Lele, Robin Russell, Cori Lausen. Back Row: (L to R) Tom Ingersoll, John Reichard, Matthew Clement, Tom Stanley, Wayne Thogmartin, Doug Johnson,Tom Hallam , Patrick Field, and John Sauer.

Bat conservation researchers and their partners associated with a NIMBioS Working Group were recognized yesterday with the U.S. Forest Service Wings Across the Americas Research Award for their contributions to the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat).

The award was accepted on behalf of the US Geological Survey contributions to NABat by Anne Kinsinger, USGS associate director for Ecosystems, at the North American Wildlife Resources Conference in Omaha, NE.  USGS partners also recognized were the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bat Conservation International, Bat Conservation Trust, Canadian Wildlife Service, University of California, University of Alberta and Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

“Research on bats is important not only because they are vital to the well-being of ecosystems, but also it is in the best interest of the economy due to the importance of bats for pest control and pollination of native and agricultural plants,” Kinsinger said.

Wings Across the Americas is an international program of the U.S. Forest Service that works with a wide range of partners here in the United States and overseas to conserve habitats and populations of birds, bats, butterflies and dragonflies. The award recognizes outstanding conservation work by U.S. Forest Service and partner agencies.

The novelty of the NABat program is a vision for collaborative monitoring of an imperiled species group with a sound statistical underpinning allowing for species distribution modeling across broad geographic regions. Researchers provide expertise on statistical survey design, statistical analysis of bat acoustic and colony count data and database development informed by experience with many wildlife species such as bats, birds and amphibians.

NABat was developed in conjunction with specialists from other agencies, universities and NGOs in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Mexico in response to growing concerns over threats to bats from continuing and emerging stressors including habitat loss and fragmentation, white-nose syndrome, wind energy development and climate change.  There are currently no national programs to monitor and track bat populations in North America, and NABat seeks to assist in development of such programs that will provide managers and policy makers with the information they need to effectively manage bat populations, detect early warning signs of population declines and estimate extinction risk.

Efforts to date include four workshops and discussions supported by NIMBioS and the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives National Council to develop a national monitoring program. The workshops were attended by scientists and researchers from multiple agencies including FWS, USGS, USFS, NPS, University of Calgary and the Canadian Wildlife Service.  The framework for NABat, “A Plan for a North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat)” will be published in May 2015.


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Peace of Cake: NIMBioS Postdoc Revealed as Top Baker


Dr. Peace and her winningest cake.

NIMBioS postdoc Angie Peace knows a little something about food web dynamics, and she also knows how to make the best kind of food: cake! Peace’s cake took 1st place this week in the Biogeography Cake Contest for UTK’s Darwin Day.

Judged on taste and scientific merit, Peace’s cake had four circular layers of alternating chocolate and red velvet with creme cheese frosting. The theme was biogeographical phylogenetics. Four different panels around the sides of the cake illustrated evolution through time with small cake islands for continents and red liquorice for phylogenetic trees. Toblerone chocolate served nicely as mountains on the top. Peace won $50 for her cake.

As a NIMBioS postdoc, Peace uses mathematical modeling to determine the effect of phosphorus pollution from fertilization run-off on the food web dynamics of freshwater lakes.

She confesses to being a life-long baker, and she is often asked to bake birthday cakes for friends. “When I was a kid, I always wanted an Easy Bake Oven, but my mom wouldn’t let me get one and so I had to use the real oven instead,” Peace said. Apparently, the lessons learned in the kitchen at a young age paid off.

Dr. Peace's cake had four panels of continents and phylogenetic trees depicting evolution through time.

Dr. Peace’s cake had four panels of chocolate continents and licorice phylogenetic trees depicting evolution through time.


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NIMBioS Hits 5,000 Mark

NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

NIMBioS at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Since our first activity in March 2009, more than 5,000 visitors have participated in NIMBioS research and educational opportunities. We recently surpassed the 5,000 mark with last week’s Investigative Workshop on Lymphoid Cells in Acute Inflammation.

NIMBioS was established in September 2008 with support from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Today, we are a NSF Synthesis Center supported through NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate via a Cooperative Agreement with UT totaling more than $35 million over ten years.

NIMBioS supports Working Groups, which focus on major well-defined scientific questions at the interface between biology and mathematics; Investigative Workshops, which focus on broad topics and which summarize/synthesize the state of the art and identify future directions; Postdoctoral Fellowships; Sabbatical Fellowships; short-term visits; and a wide array of education and outreach activities for K-12 students and teachers, undergraduate and graduate students, university and college faculty, professional industry audiences, and the general public.

Since our first activity in 2009 (Training the Trainers: High-Performance Computing Tutorial for Computational Science Professionals Collaborating with Biologists), NIMBioS has hosted more than 5,000 participants from 789 institutions in 53 countries and all 50 U.S. states and has supported 34 Working Groups, 32 Investigative Workshops, 37 Postdoctoral Fellows, 13 Sabbatical Fellows, over 200 short-term visitors, and more than 200 education and outreach activities. Activities have led to the publication of more than 370 peer-reviewed articles on topics across the breadth of quantitative biology. Publications resulting from NIMBioS activities have appeared in top national and international journals with high impact factors, including Nature, Science, Ecology Letters, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, PLOS Biology, Systematic Biology, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

One research area of particular emphasis at NIMBioS has been modeling animal
infectious diseases, such as white-nose syndrome in bats, pseudo-rabies virus in feral swine, Toxoplasma gondii in cats, and vector-transmitted diseases such as malaria in mosquitoes and humans. As a leading international center for animal infectious disease modeling, NIMBioS has contributed significantly to global needs in analyzing the potential spread, impact and control of diseases that can move from animals to humans, such as West Nile virus, anthrax, swine flu and mad cow disease.

NIMBioS has carried out extensive evaluations of the variety of activities it has supported which has led to peer-reviewed publications on the methods used at NIMBioS to foster interdisciplinary research and education. NIMBioS has made available many of the products of its activities through its website and a variety of social media outlets. Available products include more than 50 video interviews of researchers and educators discussing their experiences in mathematical biology and more than 100 videos of research and tutorial presentations at NIMBioS.

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Evolution Featured at Tennessee Teacher Conference

Mike Knapp, biology teacher at Hardin Valley High School, sets up a demonstration of his lactose intolerance lab while teachers are in discussion.

Mike Knapp (upper left), biology teacher at Hardin Valley High School, sets up a demonstration of his lactose intolerance lab while teachers discuss.

While socio-cultural forces continue to pressure teachers not to talk about evolution through intimidation and confusing laws, many science teachers remain committed in the face of adversity to helping each other teach their students the scientific consensus of evolution as an important unifying concept in science. A session on how to teach the evolution of the lactose tolerance gene drew 40 middle and high school science teachers and pre-service teachers into a packed room at the statewide Tennessee Science Teachers’ Association Conference last week. The session was jointly supported by NIMBioS and Darwin Day Tennessee.

Discussing the evolution of lactose tolerance with students presents an interesting case because it demonstrates how human culture can be a selective agent of evolution. Also, students can relate to the subject matter personally, since most of the world’s population, mostly people of non-European ancestry, can’t tolerate lactose in dairy into adulthood. Hardin Valley Academy biology teacher Mike Knapp introduced teachers to the lab that he uses with his own students, using cups of milk, Lactaid pills and glucose test strips to learn about the effect of enzymes on breaking down lactose into glucose.

Whitaker Hoskins, a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, co-presented a guided non-fiction reading on lactose tolerance from “Before the Dawn” by Nicolas Wade. Hoskins said interacting with the teachers was the highlight of his session during last week’s conference. He also spoke to teachers about the many events planned for February as a part of Darwin Day Tennessee surrounding Darwin’s birthday, including a day-long teacher workshop on teaching evolution which will be hosted at NIMBioS on February 7, 2015. Look for more details about signing up for this workshop coming soon to the Darwin Day Tennessee website.

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) donated teacher packets, videos and books to the teachers attending the session.

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