Paul Armsworth to Direct NIMBioS Postdoctoral Activities

Paul Armsworth NIMBioS Associate Director for Postdoctoral Activities

Paul Armsworth
NIMBioS Associate Director for Postdoctoral Activities

NIMBioS welcomes Paul Armsworth as associate director for postdoctoral activities. Armsworth, an associate professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, has been affiliated with NIMBioS as one its senior personnel since 2009 when he was hired as an NIMBioS-affiliated faculty member at UT.

Armsworth’s research addresses applied questions in conservation as well as process-based questions in ecology and evolution. Research in his group integrates mathematical modeling, statistical analyses, and field surveys. Previously, he was a lecturer in population and community ecology at the University of Sheffield. He received a B.A. in mathematics from Oxford University in 1996, a Ph.D. in mathematics from James Cook University, Australia, in 2000, and a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Stanford University in 2003.

As associate director for postdoctoral activities, Armsworth will lead NIMBioS’ efforts to enhance the postdoctoral experience at NIMBioS.

“Supporting post-doctoral fellows is a major focus of NIMBioS. Through their pioneering research and also through their contribution to education and outreach activities, NIMBioS postdocs are pushing the very forefront of mathematical biology. And so it’s a real privilege for me to have this opportunity to work with them and join the leadership team of NIMBioS,” Armsworth said.

The associate director for postdoctoral activities position was established in January 2012 when John C. New, Jr. was appointed to the position. New passed away suddenly on Oct. 15, 2013.

“My predecessor in the role, John New, was a wonderful colleague. John is very much missed by the NIMBioS community and the whole UT community. His are some very big footsteps to follow. The work John did as associate director for the institute provides great templates and examples that I can follow and start to build on,” Armsworth added.

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Teaching Science in a Climate of Denial at Tennessee Teacher Conference

Teachers arrange cards of famous scientific theories at the Tennessee Science Teachers Association annual conference

Teachers arrange cards with famous scientific theories at the Tennessee Science Teachers Association annual conference

Social controversy surrounding certain scientific theories poses a great challenge for teaching science in the United States — up to 60 percent of U.S. high school biology teachers report capitulating in some way to antievolution pressure, reports one study. NIMBioS and Darwin Day Tennessee are working with local teachers to help build a community of support for teaching the “hot topics” of evolution and climate change in Tennessee.

In November, NIMBioS and Darwin Day Tennessee co-organized a session at the Tennessee Science Teacher’s Association (TSTA) annual professional development conference in Murfreesboro, TN to help teachers develop strategies for how to teach science while also giving students space for their own cultural identities.  Efforts to support teachers in teaching socially controversial science are needed more than ever. In the study mentioned earlier and featured in a 2011 column in Science, of 926 high school biology teachers surveyed nationwide, only 28 percent teach evolution as a well-supported fundamental idea of science, 13 percent openly support teaching intelligent design in the classroom, and 60 percent fall in between. According to the survey, these “cautious 60 percent” employed a number of capitulating strategies, including avoiding teaching evolution altogether, calling evolution by another name (such as “change over time”), telling students that they only teach it because it’s required, teaching molecular evolution but not speciation, or telling students they can “believe” whatever they want. Many of these cautious teachers did not hold young-Earth or creationist beliefs that would prevent them from teaching evolution, but instead lacked an exceptional understanding of evolutionary biology. The study thus recommended that strengthening teachers’ understanding of evolution could help strengthen their confidence in teaching it.

High School teachers Micheal Knapp (left) and Lauren Wilmoth join discussions on the science rejection cards

High School teachers Micheal Knapp (left) and Lauren Wilmoth join discussions on the science rejection cards

At the TSTA conference session, “Teaching Science in a Climate of Denial,” ideas were presented to combat anti-evolution pressure in the classroom. Real-life scenarios, such as a student who bases an exam answer on religious or political beliefs, were used to spark ideas about how teachers can respond to such students or about how teachers can respond to similar pressure from administrators. Teachers discussed the importance of pointing to state curriculum standards, on which state achievement tests are based, to convince reluctant administrators, parents and students that what they are teaching is indeed the required content for science class. In addition, teachers discussed different ways to initiate class discussions on the nature of science, allowing students to grasp how it is different from other ways of understanding the world, such as philosophy or religion. By allowing students the opportunity to draw these distinctions early in the school year, the teachers said that students monitor themselves and each other to keep science class discussions rooted in scientific evidence and principles and without veering off into personal beliefs or opinions.

Teachers in the session also played a “Science Rejection Card Game” which involved arranging a series of scientific principles (from “The Earth is Round” to “Hand Washing Prevents the Spread of Disease”) in the order in which they think they are controversial among the public. Teachers matched each principle with a famous rejector of the science, discussing why the person may have chosen to not accept it and consequences of their rejection. Famous anti-vaccination advocate Jenny McCarthy was one example. The teacher who created the activity pointed out that by making this an open class discussion, her students came up with all kinds of reasons for why people reject science that had never occurred to her before and are able to distinguish between personal motivations and arguments based on science. Another teacher pointed out that such discussions are great opportunities to discuss bias with students, thus covering an important Tennessee curriculum standard.

Darwin Day Tennessee sponsored three high school biology teachers and a UT graduate student to travel and present at the session, including Jefferson County High School teacher Lauren Wilmoth; Oak Ridge High School teacher Beth Adler; Hardin Valley Academy teacher Micheal Knapp; and UT Ecology & Evolutionary Biology graduate student Whitaker Hoskins. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) donated teacher resources and door prizes. Barry Golden, an assistant professor in UT’s teacher education department, and Kelly Sturner, NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator, also helped advise and develop the session.

NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator Kelly Sturner and Biology in a Box Environmental Consultant Kathy DeWein show off hands on materials from the boxes at TSTA

NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator Kelly Sturner and Biology in a Box Environmental Consultant Kathy DeWein show off hands on materials from the boxes at TSTA

NIMBioS did a lot more at the TSTA conference this year to promote science and math education. Sturner also led a session titled “Modeling a Forest” based on an activity she designed at NIMBioS and published in Science Scope earlier this year. Teachers went outside to measure the diameter of tree trunks and describe how their students could measure tree height and crown diameter to mathematically model trees. Biology in a Box materials were also exhibited.

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Lee to Apply Math Modeling Skills as Rhodes Scholar


2014 Rhodes scholar Lindsay Lee

Congratulations to former NIMBioS REU Lindsay Lee who will begin graduate studies at Oxford University next year as a 2014 Rhodes scholar. Lee plans to apply the mathematical modeling that she learned as a participant in NIMBioS’ Summer Research Experiences (SRE) program to analyze disparity in health care.

“Working at NIMBioS first taught me what modeling is and how it can be used, and I’m so excited to expand on that preliminary knowledge at Oxford,” Lee told NIMBioS today. “Mathematical modeling is used constantly in public health applications. As an example, in epidemiology modeling is used to track diseases or behavioral changes that affect health outcomes. I want to use mathematics to analyze and design effective health care interventions and policies that are meant to help marginalized groups, such as people with disabilities.”

Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a young child, Lee knows firsthand the challenges faced by people with disabilities and wrote a moving personal essay about it, which was published in 2011 in Thought Catalog.

Lee, along with 32 other American students, was selected as a Rhodes scholar from 857 applicants. An annual class of 83 scholars from all over the world is selected on the basis of intellect, character, leadership and commitment to service. The postgraduate award, valued at about $50,000, covers all university and college fees, a personal stipend and one round-trip airfare to and from Oxford.

While at NIMBioS, Lee was part of the research team that modeled feral cat population dynamics in Knox County. The results were designed to help local and national animal shelters make decisions about their population control programs. Lee described her NIMBioS research experience in this NIMBioS Q&A. Her work was also featured in this video describing the program.


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Middle School Teachers Take STEM Thinking Outside the Box

A Roane State Community College professor and two middle school teachers try to figure out what's in their mystery black box at a workshop on Biology in a Box

A Roane State Community College professor and two middle school teachers work together to figure out what’s in their mystery black box at a Biology in a Box workshop

Middle school science teachers from across East Tennessee were introduced to inquiry-based activities at the intersection of math and science during several training workshops this fall. NIMBioS Associate Director for Education & Outreach Suzanne Lenhart and Education & Outreach Coordinator Kelly Sturner  helped teach the series of three workshops, all targeting teachers in different East Tennessee counties. The workshops’ goal was to introduce teachers to a popular “STEM in a box” type activities, including the University of Tennessee and NIMBioS’ Biology in a Box as well as Roane State Community College and ORAU‘s Lab-in-a-Box. STEMSpark, the East Tennessee STEM education hub — a network of educators and professionals — hosted the workshops.

More pictures from the events here!

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Aguilar Visits Howard University, Shares Work on Developing Vaccines for Chagas’ Disease

Postdoctoral Fellow Clemente Aguilar at Howard University

Postdoctoral Fellow Clemente Aguilar (center right in blue shirt) at Howard University

The math colloquium at Howard University in November featured computational biology and vaccine development with a NIMBioS postdoctoral researcher as special speaker. Postdoctoral fellow Clemente Aguilar visited Howard’s mathematics department and spoke on: “Using Computational Tools for Accelerating the Development of Vaccines for Chagas’ Disease” to a group of faculty and graduate students. Clemente interacted with students and shared research and educational opportunities at NIMBioS and in mathematical biology.

Earlier this fall postdoctoral fellows made two additional visits to NIMBioS minority serving institution partners. A. Michelle Lawing visited University of Texas-El Paso, and Chris Remien visited brand new partner Tennessee State University.

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Undergraduates From Across Country Present Research at NIMBioS Conference

IMG_4688 croppedMore than 160 undergraduates and faculty mentors converged in Knoxville, Nov. 16-17, for the fifth annual Undergraduate Research Conference at the Interface of Biology and Mathematics. More than 60 oral and poster presentations were presented, many with multiple collaborating students, on topics from mathematically modeling proteins to image analyses of microscopic worms moving through 3D-printed environments. Participants came from as far away as the University of Hawaii at Hilo, with 29 statues and 70 different institutions represented.

The keynote and featured talks also represented the great range of mathematical biology. Keynote speaker Dr. Mariel Vazquez from San Francisco State University presented her work on “DNA Unlinking by Xer Recombination” where she applies topology to better understand biochemical processes. Later, featured speaker Dr. Andrew Liebhold from the USDA Forest Service gave his talk on “Forest Insect Outbreaks: A Never-Ending Puzzle” about mathematical modeling of forest insect pest dynamics. Dr. Talitha Washington from Howard University and Dr. Joe Bailey from the University of Tennessee both joined in for the career panel to advise students about career paths in math and biology.

The conference also featured a showcase of graduate opportunities and more.

A lively stream of “tweets” took place on Twitter with the hashtag #nimbiosurc. All tweets from the conference are curated on NIMBioS’ Storify page. A full set of photos from the conference can be viewed here.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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Modeling of Microbial World Comes of Age


Exploring the individuality of microbes

The fruits of the labor of the NIMBioS Investigative Workshop on Individual-Based Ecology of Microbes: Observations and Modeling appear today in an opinion paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper argues that individual-based models are ideal for incorporating the intra-cellular dynamics of synthetic organisms in order to predict their behavior and fitness under various conditions

The paper advocates for what the authors call “microbial Individual-Based Ecology,” a combination of individual-based modeling and experimentation, arguing that this approach will lead to greater insights into ecology and evolution.

“The chance to observe, manipulate and model from first principles, from molecules via individuals to populations, communities, and ecosystems goes far beyond the current basis of ecological and evolutionary theory,” they write.

The Workshop met in June 2011.

Citation: Kreft U, et. al. 2013. Mighty small: Observing and modeling individual microbes becomes big science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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NIMBioS Hosts SHADES Girls in STEM Workshop

Rosalia, local middle school student, shows off the rubber band car in progress.

Rosalia, local middle school student, shows off her rubber band car in progress.

NIMBioS hosted area middle school girls this month for SHADES, an interactive one-day workshop in science and engineering. Girls did many fun and interactive STEM activities including T-shirt chromatography, building model sinkholes, using Geiger counters, creating genetic code bracelets, and making special tapes to measure tree trunk diameter using pi. The day culminated with an engineering design competition where the girls built rubber-band cars. The day was designed to show off fun and interesting applications of STEM to attract girls to science and engineering careers.

Girls using chromatography to create T-shirt designs

Girls using chromatography to create T-shirt designs

SHADES stands for “SHAring ADventures in Engineering and Science.” The annual event is sponsored with the Greater Knoxville Math/Science Coalition, which includes the American Association of University Women (AAUW), American Women in Science (AWIS), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), American Nuclear Society (ANS), Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers (TSPE), and US Women in Nuclear (WIN).

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NIMBioS Celebrates Diversity in STEM at National Conference

Gesham Magombedze, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow, at the 2013 SACNAS Conference in San Antonio, TX

Gesham Magombedze, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow, at the 2013 SACNAS Conference in San Antonio, TX

NIMBioS researchers and staff shared their passion for science this month at the 2013 SACNAS Annual Conference, as well as the many opportunities available to diverse STEM students and faculty at NSF math institutes and biology centers. SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, hosts an annual conference each year promoting STEM and emphasizing mentoring, networking and professional development. This year’s conference in San Antonio, TX, boasted almost 4,000 attendees, 1,000 student presentations, over 300 exhibitors, many scientific symposia and cultural events.

Anna Michelle Lawing, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow, presents at a symposium at the SACNAS conference.

Anna Michelle Lawing, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow, presents at a symposium at the SACNAS conference.

NIMBioS kicked off its participation with the Modern Math Workshop, an annual pre-conference event sponsored by all of the NSF Mathematical Sciences Institutes. During the workshop, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Gesham Magombedze presented “Modeling the Immune Response of Cattle Suffering from Johne’s Disease.” Later and during the conference itself, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Anna Michelle Lawing spoke about her work on “Using Evolutionary Biology to Inform Our Understanding of Species and Community Responses to Environmental Change” during a “Hot Topics in Evolution and Ecology” symposium. Lawing presented alongside researchers from NESCent and NCEAS, two other biology synthesis centers, to a packed room of mostly undergraduates. Later, she answered questions about climate change during a screening of science documentary Chasing Ice during SACNAS’ Evolution/Ecology Movie Night.

Notably missing from the conference were many government agencies due to the federal government shutdown. Cliff Poodry, Director of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity at the National Institutes of Health, was unable to give his invited keynote address, and many other presenters and exhibitors were unable to attend. The disappointment of the SACNAS organization with the situation was expressed in this news video clip from Fox San Antonio.

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Tylenol Scares: New Method May Help Make Life-Saving Decision


“They tell you it’s medicine. They don’t tell you it can kill you.” — David Baumle, father of 12-year-old Davy Baumle who died from acute liver failure caused by acetaminophen.

A recent in-depth investigation by This American Life radio program and ProPublica looks at the underreported dangers of overdosing on Tylenol, especially with regard to children. David Baumle tells ProPublica about the death of his son Davy who took Maximum Strength Tylenol Sore Throat over several days accidentally ingesting a lethal dose.

Acetaminophen is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the U.S. When taken at the recommended dose, however, it is safe and works well, eliminating aches and pains and reducing fever with few side effects.

A chemical antidote to acetaminophen poisoning does exist, but it is only effective if administered within eight hours of an overdose. As ProPublica reports, in one study, people who attempted suicide with acetaminophen and later regretted their action often made it to a hospital in time, whereas people who overdosed by accident were often unaware they have been poisoned. Part of the problem is that acetaminophen is found in many over-the-counter medicines in the U.S., an estimated 600 medicines, so sometimes people are unaware they have taken it. Overdose symptoms take several days to develop and resemble those of the flu. By then, it is too late for the antidote to work.

If liver damage is severe enough and the antidote is not administered early enough, the only life saving treatment is liver transplantation. Determining which patients need a transplant and which will recover is a major problem in treating patients with acetaminophen overdose.

Dr. Chris Remien

Dr. Chris Remien

NIMBioS postdoc Chris Remien and his research partners have developed a novel method to determine which patients will benefit from liver transplant in these instances. Rather than relying on purely statistical methods, Remien’s method is based on a dynamic model of acetaminophen metabolism and cellular damage.

In addition to making predictions on the need for a transplant, the model also explains the threshold with respect to acetaminophen intake and liver damage.

“There is a simple threshold in the model because of how the liver processes acetaminophen, so that there is either very little liver damage or rapid damage, which may explain why patients who chronically overuse acetaminophen can eventually develop rapid liver damage,” Remien explained.

The model has shown promise in a set of 53 patients from the University of Utah, but it still needs to be validated in a larger multi-center study before it can be used by physicians.

“We are currently collecting more data and collaborating with other groups in order to validate our method,” Remien said.

Collaborating on the project are Norman Sussman, Associate Professor of Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and Fred Adler, Professor of Mathematics and Biology at the University of Utah.

For more information about Remien’s model, view his seminar talk here.

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