Synthesis Centers Provide the ‘Special Sauce’

Synthesis centers like NIMBioS provide the special sauce that make the research magic happen. But you already knew that, didn’t you, dear reader?

A new paper published this week in BioScience argues that synthesis centers provide the critical research infrastructure that helps to catalyze collaboration, leading to breakthrough ideas, and that they are needed now more than ever.

“Synthesis Centers as Critical Research Infrastructure” presents the history and rationale for supporting synthesis centers as well as explores their long-term viability. The paper is a collaborative effort of researchers from synthesis centers around the world, including NIMBioS, that form the International Synthesis Consortium.

The National Science Foundation has funded four synthesis centers, beginning in 1995 with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. Worldwide, there are also more than a dozen new synthesis centers.

The authors distinguish synthesis centers from universities or other interdisciplinary research centers as centers integrate or re-purpose data and knowledge to expand research questions in the scientific community.

Scientists who come to collaborate with others at synthesis centers often are able to make new connections and think creatively on new approaches and methods. This “associative thinking” is one of the hallmarks of a synthesis center, the authors write.

The authors posit that synthesis centers should be viewed as fundamental to science, like telescopes or ocean vessels are to astronomy and oceanography.

“As infrastructure, synthesis centers may not be as tangible as telescopes, but technology allow cannot match the brain power of a diverse group of experts who are committed to focusing their combined insights, experience, tools, and networks on a shared problem in a collegial environment,” they write.

The six critical ingredients for synthesis center success are active management, computing and informatics capabilities, flexibility (topic, length of activities, scheduling, meeting structure), student and fellow support, diversity, and the value of unstructured time, according to the paper.

The paper cites a few examples of policy impacts of synthesis-center research, including one of the most cited papers of all time, a foundational paper that helped establish the principle of ecosystem services and the discipline of ecological economics. The 1997 paper was a result of an NCEAS working group.

The full paper is available at https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix053.

NISER Director Pam Bishop who is also NIMBioS Associate Director for STEM Evaluation and Research was a co-author.

Citation: Baron JS et al. 2017. Synthesis centers as critical research infrastructure. BioScience. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/bix053

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Grizzlies Feel the Heat

Grizzly bears photographed with remote cameras at hair-snaring stations in Cooke City Basin, Montana. Photo credit: US Forest Service

Jack Hopkins (left) collaborated with NIMBioS postdoc Jake Ferguson in June 2015.

A short term visit to NIMBioS two years ago has resulted in a study showing the effect of climate change on the diets of grizzly bears in Yellowstone.

Lead author Jack Hopkins, an assistant professor of wildlife biology at Unity College in Maine, collaborated on the paper published in PLOS ONE in May with then NIMBioS postdoc Jake Ferguson, now a postdoc in the Center for Modeling Complex Interactions at the University of Idaho.

“Selecting the best stable isotope mixing model to estimate grizzly bear diets in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” finds that although the bears’ staple diet continues to feature whitebark pine seeds, the bears appear to be consuming more plants and berries, probably as a result of a warming climate.

The slow-growing whitebark trees were once ubiquitous in western North America, but are now listed as endangered. Warming temperatures have led to shorter, milder winters, exacerbating beetle infestations and further threatening the trees’ mortality. Other important food sources for grizzlies, such as cutthroat trout and elk, have also declined in the region.

The research team, which also included Daniel Tyers of the US Forest Service and Carolyn Kurle of UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences, focused on modeling the diets of grizzly bears in Cooke City Basin, Montana in the northeast of Yellowstone National Park. They measured stable isotopes in bear hair collected from 2007-2009 to determine what bears had been eating each year.

The findings could be useful in predicting how Yellowstone’s grizzly population will adapt to future environmental change — more important now than ever, as Yellowstone grizzlies are currently being considered to be delisted under the Endangered Species Act.

The paper is available open access at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0174903

Citation: Hopkins JB, Ferguson JM, Tyers DM, Kurle CM. Selecting the best stable isotope mixing model to estimate grizzly bear diets in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. PLOS ONE. 12(5): e0174903. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0174903

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2017 Summer Research Program Begins

Undergraduates begin their summer research at NIMBioS in the 9th annual program.

Sixteen undergraduates and a middle school math teacher began their summer research with NIMBioS on Monday. The Summer Research Experience (SRE) program runs for eight weeks, from June 5-July 28.

Participants come from across the United States to work in teams with NIMBioS postdocs and UT faculty on research at the interface of mathematics and biology. This year’s projects cover a variety of topics, from mating patterns in birds’ evolution to modeling the spread of La Crosse virus in East Tennessee to modeling the immune system in host-virus conflicts, and more.

NIMBioS Education and Outreach Coordinator Greg Wiggins reports that the students have met with their respective project mentors to discuss their projects. “They are excited to begin their research experience and explore the Knoxville area,” Wiggins said.

Although the main focus is research, the students also receive training on mathematical modeling and software, careers, and graduate school, as well as experience working with the media. They also make time for field trips, dinner parties and other social gatherings.

The 2017 SRE marks the ninth annual summer program, which typically receives more than 100 applicants. SRE participants have gone on to do amazing things, from publishing their research in academic journals, to winning competitions with their research, to pursuing doctoral studies in at the interface of math and biology. Participants receive a stipend, apartment-style housing, and travel support to Knoxville.

More photos in our SRE Photo Album.

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Major Accomplishments: The 9th Annual Report, NIMBioS Edition

NIMBioS’ 9th annual reporting period to the National Science Foundation, which largely funds the institute, recently concluded, and the 220-page report has been submitted to NSF. 

NSF requires its funded institutes to dig into the details as to the number of participants, countries from which they hale, and all kinds of other data. NSF also seeks to learn about our accomplishments (see box) and the impact of our activities (see box). 

The answers to these questions and much more can be found in our 9th annual report.

Here are a few snapshots from this year’s reporting period, which runs from September 2016 to August 2017 (projected):

  • NIMBioS hosted (or will host this summer) 18 meetings of 16 different Working Groups, three Investigative Workshops, three Tutorials, and five additional workshops.
  • There are projected to be more than 800 participants in NIMBioS-hosted activities during this period with 8 Postdoctoral Fellows in residence and 26 Short-term Visitors.
  • From September 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017, there were 589 participants from 19 countries and 42 U.S. states as well as the District of Columbia representing 187 different institutions.
  • International participants amounted to 14% of all participants.
  • Most participants were college or university faculty (50%), but undergraduates (10%), post-doctoral researchers (6%), and graduate students (5%) accounted for a significant fraction of participants.
  • Across all events female representation was 44%, and minority representation was near 18%. Representation of various minority categories was slightly above levels of minority representation for doctoral recipients in the biological sciences and the mathematical sciences.
  • While the majority of participants identify themselves as being in fields of biological/biomedical sciences and mathematical sciences, there are a number of participants from the social sciences, marine sciences, health sciences, education, engineering, and others.
  • A total of 446 NIMBioS-related products were reported for the period (includes journal articles, book chapters, books, conference papers and presentations, software or data products, grant requests, educational aids or curricula, meetings, workshops or symposiums, and other miscellaneous products/publications).
  • Affiliation with a NIMBioS Working Group was found to have a significant positive effect on participant collaboration activities (i.e. number of co-authors, number of international co-authors, number of cross institutional co-authors) and a moderate effect on publication activities (i.e. publishing in new fields).

Like what NIMBioS is doing? Consider ways to give back. Contribute to our campaign to to ensure the continued success of our synthesis and educational programs. Your support will continue to help NIMBioS grow and help ensure its future.

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Gavrilets Elected Member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Sergey Gavrilets
NIMBioS Associate Director for Scientific Activities

Congratulations are in order for NIMBioS’ own Sergey Gavrilets who has been elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

He is one of 228 national and international scholars, artists, philanthropists, and business leaders in the class of 2017 of the prestigious organization, which, since its founding in 1780, has been one of this country’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers. Gavrilets and the other new members will be formally inducted at a ceremony to be held next October in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“It is an honor to welcome this new class of exceptional men and women as part of our distinguished membership,” said Don Randel, chair of the Academy’s board of directors. “Their talents and expertise will enrich the life of the Academy and strengthen our capacity to spread knowledge and understanding in service to the nation.”

Members of the new class include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur “genius award” recipients, Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts recipients, and winners of the Academy, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Awards.

Gavrilets, distinguished professor in UT’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Mathematics, follows in the footsteps of historical greats such as Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Mead, and Nelson Mandela, who were all notable members of the academy.

The academy’s purpose is “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

“I view this as a recognition of the success of our mathematical biology program started by Tom Hallam and Lou Gross 35 years ago,” Gavrilets said. “This later led to the establishment of NIMBioS as a national and international hub for transdisciplinary research and the coordinated hiring of multiple bright junior faculty in several UT departments working at the interface of biology, mathematics, computational, and social sciences.”

Gavrilets’ research focuses on population genetics, adaptation, speciation, coevolution, diversification, phenotypic plasticity, and sexual conflict. Gavrilets has researched human origins, human uniqueness, human social and cultural evolution, within- and between-group conflict, and cooperation.

 

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NIMBioS-UT Partner to Help Students With Disabilities

NIMBioS and UT have partnered to create a new organization on campus — the STEM Alliance — which aims to improve the success of students with disabilities in the STEM disciplines.

The STEM Alliance is part of the South East Alliance for Persons with Disabilities in STEM (SEAPD-STEM) program, a network of education institutions in the southeastern US and Washington, DC with a goal to significantly advance a collaborative approach to improve the success of students with disabilities in the STEM disciplines.

The UT-NIMBioS STEM Alliance provides scholarship funds to its students and also holds regular meetings throughout the semester on professional development topics, such as careers, resume writing, mentorship, graduate schools and internships. The group also holds informal gatherings to share ideas and provide support. New students are accepted each semester.

The goals of SEAPD-STEM are:

  1. Increase the quality and quantity of persons with disabilities completing associate, undergraduate, and graduate degrees in STEM disciplines and entering the STEM workforce, especially among minorities, veterans, and women.
  2. Increase the quality and quantity of post-doctoral fellows and junior faculty with disabilities in STEM fields.
  3. Improve academic performance of students with disabilities in secondary level science and mathematics courses.
  4. Enhance communication and collaboration among post-secondary institutions, industry, government, national labs, and community in addressing the education of students with disabilities in STEM discipline.
  5. Assess our activities to understand what works to support the matriculation and retention of STEM students with disabilities in science followed by broad dissemination through workshops, conference presentations, webinars, and peer-reviewed publications.

SEAPD-STEM is funded by the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) program, a comprehensive national initiative designed to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations focused on NSF’s commitment to diversity, inclusion, and broadening participation in these fields.

SEAPD-STEM builds on the success of the Alabama Alliance for Students with Disabilities in STEM (AASD-STEM), an NSF-funded collaboration between Auburn University, Auburn University Montgomery, Alabama State University, Tuskegee University, and Southern Union State Community College. Over the past seven years, AASD-STEM has provided academic and social support for over 200 students with disabilities in STEM majors through peer and faculty mentoring, research internships, group meetings, annual conferences, and student support organizations. SEAPD-STEM increases the reach of AASD-STEM by adding an additional 16 institutions to the program, for a total of 21 participating colleges and universities in six states and Washington, D.C.

Since it was established in 2008, NIMBioS has been a leader in promoting diversity in all its activities. Diversity is considered in all its aspects, social and scientific, including gender, ethnicity, scientific field, career stage, geography and type of home institution. You can learn more about NIMBioS diversity programs and initiatives at its STEM Diversity Enhancement web page at http://www.nimbios.org/education/diversity

For more information about the UT-NIMBioS program and how to apply, visit the web page at http://www.nimbios.org/education/stem

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New Roster of Summer Undergrads Announced

Five interesting projects ready for researchers in this summer’s SRE program

NIMBioS is pleased to announce the 17 participants selected for its highly competitive 2017 Summer Research Experience (SRE) program. The participants, which this year include one middle school math teacher, were selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants. The program runs for eight weeks, from June 5-July 28. Participants will come to NIMBioS on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus to work in teams with NIMBioS postdocs and UT faculty on research at the interface of mathematics and biology.

2017 SRE participants and their assigned team projects are as follows:

Sharee Brewer (Biology and Math, Fisk Univ.); Kimberly Dautel (Applied Mathematics, Marist College); Brian Lerch (Biology, Case Western Reserve Univ.) and Alan Liang (Math and Computer Science, Cornell Univ.) will team up on a project to build a model to investigate mating patterns in birds’ evolution.

Axel Hranov (Computer Science, Univ. of Tennessee); Audrey Hommes (Mathematics, Vanderbilt Univ.); and Saroj Duwal (Computer Science, Univ. of New Orleans) will work on a project to develop computer games for teaching biology.

Alison Adams (Genetics and Applied Mathematics, Univ. of Georgia, Athens); Quiyana Murphy (Math and Psychology, Univ. of Kentucky); and Owen Dougherty (Biology with Microbiology, Univ. of Tennessee) will work on a project to model the immune system in host-virus conflict.

Brian Hardison (7th and 8th grade math, Pi Beta Phi Elementary School, Gatlinburg, TN); Patrick Wise (Biology and History, Univ. of Delaware); Maitraya Ghatak (Mathematics, Univ. of Tennessee); and Javier Urcuyo (Applied Math and Biology, Arizona State Univ.) will team up on a project to model the spread of La Crosse encephalitis virus in East Tennessee.

Tanay Wakhare (Math and Computer Science, Univ. of Maryland, College Park); David Nguyen (Biology, Eastern Washington Univ.); and Lara Weaver (Mathematics, Univ. of Tennessee) will work on a project to examine disease-independent seasonal patterns and pathogen dynamics in multi-host systems.

 

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New Ideas Incubating at NIMBioS

Incubator Roundtable participants at NIMBioS

NIMBioS hosted its first ever Synthesis Incubator on the theme of “Emerging Risks, Measured Responses” last week, which brought together researchers and various local, state and federal stakeholders to discuss topics and generate ideas for collaboration.

Through roundtable discussions and an evening of networking, participants addressed a diverse set of problems representing “emerging risks” with goals to forge new collaborative networks and new paths to “measured responses. ”

Roundtable discussions covered topics related to preparing students to use math in analyzing emerging risks, building adaptive capacity into conservation and natural resource management, identifying issues that can be addressed with spatially explicit datasets, and addressing current problems in host-pathogen interactions.

The day concluded with networking over hors d’oeuvres and music, dinner and a keynote address from James LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory, University of Texas Medical Branch. The evening social activities were held at the Foundry in Knoxville.

Check out our photo album on Flickr below.

For the full program including list of participants, visit http://www.nimbios.org/incubator/

Incubator 2017

 

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Blackwell-Tapia Conference Makes the Grade

Conference attendees and award recipient Mariel Vazquez (center)

The final report of the ninth annual Blackwell-Tapia Conference and Award Ceremony, held Oct. 28-29, is out and feedback from the participant feedback shows that by all measures the conference was a success.

NIMBioS was the lead organizing institute, along with the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI) as co-organizing institute. The NSF Mathematical Sciences Institutes Diversity Committee hosted the event, which was held at NIMBioS and at the University of Tennessee Conference Center.

The conference was sponsored in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. According to the final evaluation report, the grant’s goal to support the conference in providing early-career minority mathematicians with enhanced understanding of their field, networking with peers, and interactions with senior researchers was achieved.

More than 100 participants attended the conference. Most participants represented a variety of researchers across different career stages with the majority of participants at early career stages.

According to the evaluation report, 100% of survey respondents found the overall quality of the conference, banquet, award presentation, and networking opportunities to be good or better.

“It was such a positive environment,” said one postdoc participant. “I saw many minorities who [are] role models. That gave me more hope in the sense that it made me realize
that probably I would be able to continue my growth as a mathematician.”

The bi-annual conference was established in 2000, honoring David Blackwell and Richard Tapia for their inspiration of AfricanAmerican, Native American, and Latino/Latina students to pursue careers in mathematics. This year’s prize was awarded to Dr. Mariel Vazquez, a mathematics professor at the University of California, Davis.

The final evaluation report, which summarizes the conference’s success in relation to associated metrics provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, includes participant survey results, participant demographic information, a report assessing long-term effects of the conference, and much more.

Links to videos of the conference presentations, blog posts about the conference, and other conference details can be found on the conference web page.

The conference photo album can be found on the NIMBioS Flickr page.

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Science Pub for Postdoc Martin

Former postdoc Ryan Martin

Research on adaptation and climate change by Ryan Martin while a postdoc at NIMBioS appears this month in Science.

“Precipitation drives global variation in natural selection” quantifies how climate variation influences selection. With plant and animal data from multiple terrestrial biomes, temperature explained little variation, but precipitation and water evaporation, along with the North Atlantic Oscillation pressure system, predicted variation across the plant and animal populations. The results provide evidence that local and global climate cycles are likely important drivers of natural selection in the wild.

The research originated from a working group at the former National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in which Martin participated as a NIMBioS postdoc.

Martin was a NIMBioS postdoc from September 2012 – December 2013. Upon completing his NIMBioS fellowship, Martin accepted a faculty position in the Department of Biology at Case Western Reserve University where he continues today.

Citation: Siepielski AM et al. 2017. Precipitation drives global variation in natural selection. Science 355:959-62. 

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