Baba Promises to Drop Knowledge via Rap

Baba Brinkman

We’re very excited to catch Baba Brinkman at the world premiere of his Rap Guide to Culture live on stage next month at a free public event at UT’s Student Union.

The New York-based award winning playwright, science communicator, and Canadian rap artist is best known for his ‘Rap Guide’ series of science-themed plays, and he’s gained worldwide fame with successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the World Science Festival, and a series of off-Broadway plays.

Lucky for us, Baba is returning to NIMBioS where he was a Songwriter-in-Residence in 2012. He will also participate in and perform one of his signature “rap-ups” of the DySoC/NIMBioS Investigative Workshop on Social Norms.

We caught up with Baba to find out about his musical aspirations, why he thinks science is redemption, and what to expect in the new performance. Whether or not you’re a rap fan, Baba’s shows always enlighten and entertain. Check out his latest video for Rap Guide to Climate Chaos and a review of the smart song collection.

Q. Why rap about science?

The findings of science are emerging as the greatest story ever told, both the most inspiring and also the most important to comprehend if we want to alleviate suffering and improve the wellbeing of everyone on this planet. Rap at its essence is a storytelling art form, which makes it a powerful way to tell the stories of science, and also the musical and lyrical power of the genre allows people to connect to the message viscerally, in a way that a lecture can’t achieve, so I’m hoping to spread passion for an curiosity about science, in addition to just dropping some knowledge on people.

Q. What can audiences expect from the world premiere of the Rap Guide to Culture?

Audiences can expect to encounter a new way of thinking about what culture is and how it works, with rap and hip-hop culture as the “model organism” under investigation. I’ll be breaking down the evolutionary forces that shaped the norms and techniques of my favorite art form, while generalizing them to our species and the recent history of the planet. When you boil it down, culture is biology. It’s a non-genetic evolutionary process that owes its origins to genetic evolutionary processes, and the better we understand how culture is linked to the rest of the life sciences, the more we can steer its evolution in directions that promote positive social outcomes rather than unintended negative consequences. So the show will be about culture but also about saving the world from itself, with science and rap as the unexpected forces of redemption.

Q. Is the show suitable for young audiences?

The official rating is PG-13, as with my other “Rap Guide” shows, but if parents want to bring younger children, it’s up to them and their assessment of their offspring’s maturity level. I can promise it will be no more salacious than most modern rap, and the mature references and strong language will at least be employed in the service of an overarching educational message.

Q. Do you have to like rap to enjoy your show?

I’m sometimes described as “rap for people who don’t like rap” so no, if you’re not into rap, you will still have a good time, although you might find yourself asking “Why in the name of Darwin didn’t I like rap before? Where did I go wrong?” On the other hand, if you already like rap, you’re in for a real treat.

4. While at NIMBioS, you will participate in the DySoC/NIMBioS Investigative Workshop on Social Norms. What will your role be?

My role in the workshop will be to absorb as much information as possible and write and perform rap summaries of the daily talks and activities, while also checking the accuracy of Rap Guide to Culture against the data in the presentations. I will likely have to change aspects of the show after attending the workshop, but that’s my whole process, and mantra: Performance, Feedback, Revision. (That’s also how evolution works)

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Baba Brinkman Returns!

Rap artist and award-winning playwright Baba Brinkman

New York-based rap artist and former NIMBioS Songwriter-in-Residence Baba Brinkman returns in April to participate in a DySoC/NIMBioS workshop and premiere a new work, Rap Guide to Culture, in a free public performance.

Brinkman has been wowing audiences for ten years with his imaginative and award-winning “Rap Guide to…” series in which he takes ideas from science and philosophy and presents them in a unique platform: hip-hop.

When he returns to NIMBioS in April, he will premiere his new “Rap Guide to Culture” at 7:30 p.m. on April 23, 2019, in UT’s Student Union.

The series so far includes rap guides to Evolution, Human Nature, Business, Wilderness, Religion, Medicine, Climate Change, and Consciousness. His latest science/rap/comedy show, about the neuroscience of consciousness, recently concluded an eight-month run off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse.

Called “astonishing and brilliant” by the New York Times, Baba is a Scotsman Fringe First Award winner and a two-time Drama Desk Award Nominee. He was featured on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and at the Seattle Science Festival opening for Stephen Hawking. Baba is a winner of the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin Award” for his efforts to improve public understanding of evolutionary biology.

In addition to his science rap, Baba is a pioneer in the genre of “lit-hop” or literary hip-hop, with rap adaptations of Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Baba tours and performs regularly and has spoken at several TEDx conferences and performed at the World Science Festival.

At NIMBioS, Baba will perform one of his signature “rap-ups” as a part of the DySoC/NIMBioS Investigative Workshop on Social Norms, April 23-25, 2019.

Baba was a Songwriter-in-Residence at NIMBioS in 2012. His original songs written while at NIMBioS include “Welcome to NIMBioS,” “Rising Up,” and “Mad Scientist.” “Welcome to NIMBioS” is a rap-up of the visit by the National Science Foundation during its site review of NIMBioS, which occurred while Baba was in residence in April 2012, and features “an intro” by NIMBioS Director Louis Gross. Listen to the raps at

Like all of Baba’s performances, his April show at UT cuts across a wide range of disciplines, from science to music to the arts. The interdisciplinary nature of the show is evident in the wide range of partners across the UT campus who are sponsoring Baba’s performance. We appreciate their support! Visit our webpage for updates:

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DySoC Welcomes Renowned Primatologist Frans de Waal

Dr. Frans de Waal

The Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity (DySoC) at NIMBioS is pleased to host world-renowned primatologist Frans de Waal for a talk next month on animal emotion and empathy ahead of his much-anticipated new book, to be published in March.

Drawing upon his decades of research on empathy and the perception of emotion in primates, de Waal’s talk will make the point that the study of animal emotion is a necessary complement to the study of behavior.

The talk, “Animal Emotions and Empathy,” will be held at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14. Full details at

A leading voice in uncovering the emotional world of primates and parallels in humans, de Waal is credited with the discovery of conflict resolution among primates. His work has inspired the field of primate cognition as it relates to cooperation, altruism, and fairness.

An engaging science writer and one of the world’s most visible primatologists, de Waal is the author of 13 books, which have been translated into 20 languages. He is widely known for such books as “Chimpanzee Politics,” “Peacemaking Among Primates,” “The Age of Empathy,” “The Bonobo and the Atheist,” and New York Times bestseller, “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?”.

Of de Waal’s most recent book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves” (Norton, March 2019), New York Times best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari writes: “A captivating and big-hearted book full of compassion and brimming with insights about the lives of animals, including human ones.”

The book will be available for sale at the talk, and de Waal will sign books following his talk.

De Waal is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University where he directs the university’s Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, one of the world’s foremost centers for research on primate behavior.

Involved in NIMBioS activities since the start, de Waal participated in the first Working Group, on Coalitions and Alliances, which met in 2009 and 2010. During his visit in February, he will participate as a co-organizer of the DySoC/NIMBioS Investigative Workshop on Human Origins 2021.

De Waal is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people and listed by Discover Magazine among its all-time “Great Minds of Science.” He has received a Los Angeles Times Book Award (for his 1989 work, Peacemaking among Primates), the American Psychological Foundation’s Arthur W. Staats Award, and the Edward O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation’s Technology Pioneer Award.

Recognized by the American Society of Primatologists as a “Distinguished Primatologist,” de Waal is the editor-in-chief of the scientific journal Behaviour.

De Waal completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Nijmegen, began graduate studies at the University of Groningen, and received a Ph.D. in biology from Utrecht University, where he is a distinguished university professor.

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Special Issue Dedicated to Lenhart

The November issue of Natural Resource Modeling is dedicated to Suzanne Lenhart, NIMBioS Associate Director for Education and Outreach and a Chancellor’s Professor in Mathematics at UT.

Three former students of Lenhart’s—Rachel Leander, Wandi Ding and René Salinas—guest edited the special issue. Lenhart chaired Leander’s and Ding’s dissertation committees, while Lenhart served on Salinas’ dissertation committee and co-wrote six papers with him. Leander is an assistant professor of mathematics at Middle Tennessee State University and Ding is a professor of mathematics there. Salinas is an associate professor of mathematics at Appalachian State University.

They write: “Suzanne Lenhart’s dedication to making mathematics diverse, inclusive, and accessible sets her apart from other great mathematicians.”

While students at UT, despite her busy schedule, Lenhart was always available. “She had a reputation for being a professor you could go to for help,” they write.

In addition to commending Lenhart’s research accomplishments in the mathematical sciences, the authors note her dedication to helping advance underrepresented students in the STEM fields and to making mathematics accessible to younger students and researchers.

“By making mathematics accessible to a larger and more
diverse group of people, Suzanne contributes immeasurably to the advancement of science,” they write.

Congratulations, Dr. Lenhart!

You can read the full dedication at

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Southern African Mathematics Teachers Train at the Interface

Lenhart leads a mathematical biology activity at the SAMSA Teachers’ Workshop in Botswana.

Teachers from Southern African countries received specialized training in mathematical biology last week from NIMBioS Associate Director for Outreach and Education Suzanne Lenhart at the Southern Africa Mathematical Sciences Association (SAMSA) Annual Conference in Palapye, Botswana.

Lenhart taught lessons on using probability to measure biodiversity to about 60 high school teachers as a part of the conference’s Pre-University Mathematics Teachers’ Workshop. Materials from the measuring biodiversity lesson were published in article by co-author Lenhart in Mathematics Teacher in 2014 and are available on the NIMBioS website.

“The teachers actively participated in the activities and seemed positive about working on them,” Lenhart said.

Lenhart also gave a research talk on La Crosse virus modeling, participated in a SAMSA-Masaum research collaboration, and led a discussion at the two -day African Women in Mathematics Workshop as a part of the conference, which was held at Botswana International University of Science and Technology.

The SAMSA-Masamu program, based at Auburn University, serves to promote U.S.-Africa collaboration in mathematics research.

This is the second year that Lenhart has trained teachers as a part of the conference. Last year’s SAMSA Teachers’ Workshop, which was held in Tanzania, was organized by Lenhart.

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STEM Group Broadens Participation for Students with Disabilities

Improving the success of students with disabilities in the STEM disciplines has been the goal of the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance. The group has been busy this fall with scholarships for its members, local local high school outreach, and professional development activities.

Seven UT students received scholarships to support their academic studies at UT.

Building on a successful visit to Knoxville’s L&N STEM Academy in the spring, students from the STEM Alliance paid another visit this fall. The informal Meet & Greet for high school students with disabilities was similar to one held in the spring when about 20 high schoolers attended with positive feedback from all involved. The UT students shared tips and resources based on their own experiences as students with disabilities in STEM majors on the UT campus.

The STEM Alliance typically meets bi-weekly throughout the semester. The group hosts discussions on professional development topics, such as careers, resume writing, mentorship, graduate schools and internships. Other informal gatherings throughout the semester provide a place for support and to share ideas and experiences.

This fall the group viewed a Peabody-award winning documentary on autism and inclusion called DEEJ about an American autistic activist and high school student David James Savarese. Savarese is nonspeaking and uses alternative and augmentative communication methods in his daily life as a student preparing for transition to higher education.

Other topics this fall included a session on art and disabilities with UT art professor Timothy Hiles and a session on handling stress with Billie Amatus-Salaam from UT Center for Health Education and Wellness.

For more information about the UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance, visit its website.

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Templeton Foundation Funds Project to Advance Study of Cultural Evolution

KNOXVILLE—What is the relationship between genes, culture and the individuals that comprise the great collective structures of human society? While our genes have evolved so too has our culture, and yet science has not quite kept up with understanding the dynamic processes at play in cultural evolution.

A new effort from the Center for the Dynamics of Society Complexity (DySoC) at the University of Tennessee to bring tools from the natural sciences to the social sciences to better understand cultural evolution has been awarded funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

The project, led by DySoC Director Sergey Gavrilets, will apply dynamical systems theory commonly used in physics and mathematics to the social sciences and will train researchers who study culture and society to use the theory’s tools. The project is a joint effort with Peter J. Richerson who is the President of a newly formed Cultural Evolution Society.

Dynamical systems is often used to study complex processes in the natural sciences, for example, to understand changes in the climate system or the motion of planets or the way diseases spread in a population. Increasingly, it is being applied to the study of social systems. The availability of larger and more complex data sets describing short and long term changes in human society make dynamic modeling particularly useful for testing various theories and making predictions.

The new project involves organizing and developing web-based educational materials for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and creating a new textbook on applying methods of dynamical systems theory to the evolution of institutions, a topic which brings together many basic and applied issues in cultural evolution. The project will also support some of the activities planned by the Cultural Evolution Society.

“A myriad of important challenges face society and the human species right now. We hope this new effort will lay the groundwork for a social scientific paradigm shift that could ultimate provide new scientifically-informed, robust policy tools by which we might humanely direct our own evolution,” Gavrilets said.

The project’s educational website components will be developed by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) where DySoC is housed.

Established in 1987, the John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to what scientists and philosophers call the “big questions” of human purpose and reality. It supports work at the world’s top universities in fields such as theoretical physics, cosmology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science and social science.

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New Quantitative Skills Curriculum Wins Funding

A unique program developed by NIMBioS to bring quantitative education to graduate students in the life sciences has been awarded funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF), one of only three BWF awards to be made nationally.

“Enhancing Quantitative and Data Science Education for Graduate Students in Biomedical Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville” prioritizes current research topics suggested by biology faculty as a focal point for teaching PhD students in biomedical science.

Faculty from life sciences departments at UT—including the Departments of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology, Microbiology, and the UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Graduate School in Genome Science & Technology—will identify the key quantitative concepts and methods to be studied. Mathematics faculty whose research focuses on applying mathematics and statistics to biological applications will also lend their expertise. NIMBioS will coordinate the effort. (Read the full news release).

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Modeling with Math for Teachers

Associate Director for Education & Outreach Suzanne Lenhart illustrates the concepts in the “Modeling with Math” teacher workshop. Sixteen teachers from Knoxville area high schools attended.

A new resource for teachers, “Modeling with Mathematics,” with examples and exercises to illustrate modeling concepts using mathematics from Algebra I and II is now available on the NIMBioS website.

Simple models with discrete time steps are included, as well as functions with continuous variables, such as time or number of dollars. Open-ended scenarios to practice creating models are also available.

Additionally, two presentations demonstrate the construction of functions to fit data and the use of probability in biology models. An Excel file is provided to iterate and to illustrate discrete models with sequences.

The teacher workshop for which these materials were developed was conducted in cooperation with Lynn Hodge, associate professor of mathematics education at the UT-Knoxville, and was partially supported by the East TN STEM Hub and the Center for Enhancement Education in Mathematics and Sciences.

The unit is another addition to NIMBioS’ growing list of educational resources, which includes nine educational modules, geared to different grade levels, from K-12. The modules cover a variety of topics, from measuring biodiversity to modeling predator-prey relationships in soil and more.

For more information about NIMBioS Education & Outreach offerings, contact Associate Director of Education & Outreach Suzanne Lenhart ( or Education & Outreach Coordinator Greg Wiggins (

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NIMBioS Extracurriculars & the Mathematics of Dance

“It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind;–but when a beginning is made– when the felicities of rapid motion have once been, though slightly, felt–it must be a very heavy set that does not ask for more.” — Jane Austen in “Emma”

No, this is the not the first interdisciplinary workshop on the mathematics of English country dance, but perhaps it could be.

A man of many talents, NIMBioS Director Louis Gross donned his Elizabethan attire last week to join other local English country dancers in teaching a few steps to students in a 200-level English class at UT that includes the works of Jane Austen. The dancing was very popular at the turn of the 19th century during Austen’s time and featured in her novels, not to mention a good number of modern Austen movie adaptations.

Gross has danced with the local group, Lark in the Moon, for about 15 years. Weekly dances to live music are held every Sunday at the Laurel Theater. Newcomers are always welcome.

“It’s a wonderful group of folks, good exercise, and has participants from elementary school to retired folks,” Gross said.

With their weaving and whirling, the dances reveal a formal mathematical structure akin to abstract algebra, Gross observed, making his visit to the classroom yet another NIMBioS contribution to foster interdisciplinary connections across campus.

Who ever said that college English class is not interesting?!

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