Poverty and Disease Explored in Essay

Calistus Ngonghala

Calistus Ngonghala

Former postdoctoral fellow Calistus Ngonghala’s essay examining poverty and disease is featured this week in PLOS Biology. Ngonghala and his co-authors explore how coupled models of ecology and economic growth can provide key insights into factors driving the formation and persistence of poverty traps.

To illustrate the method, the essay presents a simple coupled model of infectious disease and economic growth, which ties capital accumulation to ecological processes. In the model, poverty traps emerge from nonlinear relationships, which are determined by the number of pathogens in the system. The model shows that a system of coupled economic growth and epidemiological dynamics can change underlying equilibrium income and disease phenomena and can generate stability.

The work was begun when Ngonghala was at NIMBioS from August 2011 to September 2013. He is now a research fellow in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Citation: Ngonghala CN et al. 2014. Poverty, disease and the ecology of complex systems. PLOS Biology. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001827

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NIMBioS and University of Tennessee to Exhibit at ‘Superbowl of STEM’ in DC

University of Tennessee lab manager Courtney Patterson builds a giant paper mache mushroom for the "Fungus Among US" booth.

University of Tennessee lab manager Courtney Patterson builds a giant paper mache mushroom for the “Fungus Among US” booth.

NIMBioS and the University of Tennessee hopes to inspire the next generation of innovators at the 3rd USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo and Book Fair, to be held April 26-27 in Washington, DC.

The Festival Expo, which takes place from 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. each day at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, is a free, family-friendly event that allows kids and adults to participate in more than 3,000 hands-on activities and see more than 100 live stage performances. The event is the grand finale of the Festival’s year-long science celebration.

Taking the entire convention center, the Festival Expo will also have a Career Pavilion, Book Fair—complete with signings by well-known science authors, and multiple competitions such as EPA P3’s sustainability challenge. In all, the Festival, which is hosted by founding and presenting sponsor Lockheed Martin, expects more than 250,000 people to participate.

NIMBioS and UT’s Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Department will collaborate to host a fun, hands-on booth, “Fungus Among Us,” to teach the benefits of fungi. Kids will pretend to be plants exploring the soil, with or without helpful fungi that make getting vital nutrients easier, and the results of timed trials will be graphed. Older kids and families visiting the booth will learn how mathematical models can help us understand how ecosystems work.

“We’ll show thousands of kids and families the exciting things you can discover about the natural world using mathematical thinking,” said Kelly Sturner, NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator, who will help run the booth.

Also helping with the booth will be Courtney Patterson, EEB’s Ecosystems Ecology Lab Manager, and Nora Dunkirk and Brandy Pieper, two seniors majoring in biology.

The Festival features science celebrities, explorers, astronauts, athletes, authors, and experts in fields like robotics, genomics, medicine, advanced manufacturing, and even 3D printing. Participating celebrities include:
•    Dirty Job’s Mike Rowe (Discovery Channel)
•    Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
•    Bill Nye the Science Guy
•    Grammy Award-Winners “They Might Be Giants”
•    Author and Illustrator David Macaulay
•    Author and Actress (Wonder Years) Danica McKeller
•    Miss California Crystal Lee (Stanford grad, Miss USA Runner Up, and STEM advocate)
•    Design Squad’s Nate Bell (PBS)
•    Illusionist Apollo Robbins
•    Stuck with Hackett’s Chris Hackett (Science Channel)
•    “Super Woman of Big-Wave Surfing” Maya Gabeira
•    MoneyBall’s Paul Depodesta
•    Cast and crew from TV Shows like Big Bang Theory, House and Breaking Bad

Among its themes this year is a focus on encouraging diversity in STEM careers. Also with more than three million unfilled jobs that require STEM experience, the event is highlighting skills based and “do-it-yourself” professions to emphasize the dire need for skilled workers. In addition, the Festival is showcasing new technologies and their applications.

Founded by serial entrepreneur Larry Bock and Lockheed Martin Chief Technology Officer Ray O’ Johnson to address the severe shortage in science and tech talent, the USA Science & Engineering Festival is the nation’s largest science festival and was developed to ignite the next generation’s interest in considering careers in science and engineering. In recognition of the Festival’s role in making STEM a national priority, Congress recently designated the last week in April as “National Science Week” and made the Festival a focal point.

“Science is amazing…that’s our message to kids and adults attending the Festival. Staying competitive as a nation means we have to encourage more kids to think about careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). What better way to capture their imaginations than gathering the rock stars of science in one place and providing activities they can really do?” explained Larry Bock, Festival co-founder.

To learn more, visit www.USAScienceFestival.org or watch the video at www.usasciencefestival.org/festival-highlight-video.

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Lend Your Ears to the Sounds of Howls

wolfAttention scientists and citizen scientists! NIMBioS is supporting a new project that aims to source the crowd for help in analyzing thousands of howls from wolves, coyotes, dogs and other canid species.

At the new Canid Howl Project website, volunteers will listen to a canid howl while viewing a spectogram image of it. Participants are then asked to “mark the howl” by clicking and drawing a line to indicate the howl’s contours in the spectogram.

The website contains thousands of spectograms and howls, so participants can mark as many as they want.

Despite being closely related, canid species have very different ways of communicating with various sounds, including howls, barks, yips and growls. By studying vocal behavior, scientists hope to understand more about the whole range of canid species and breeds, said NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Arik Kershenbaum, who created the site. 

As there are thousands of sounds to analyze, Kershenbaum and his fellow collaborators at the project hope to enlist the help of volunteers.

“Analyzing these recordings is difficult and time consuming. It’s easy to make mistakes, and mistakes can change the conclusions that we draw. By having hundreds, even thousands, of volunteers giving their own analysis of the canid howls, any one mistake is unlikely to change the overall interpretation. The volunteers’ efforts will help us better to understand canid social behavior and conserve these species,” he said.

The goal is to determine exactly how the animals vary the pitch of their howls in time, relative to other animals that are howling at the same time, which can shed light on the meaning of the howls, such as for marking territory or for hunting. Thus, participants will measure all the pitch variations they see in the spectogram.

Humans are actually better at analyzing the sounds than computers, according to Kershenbaum. “Humans are especially skilled at finding patterns in pictures, better in fact than a computer algorithm,” he said.

Kershenbaum and his collaborators will use the analyses to convert the lines drawn by users into time and frequency data to determine exactly what sounds the animals are making.

Another way that volunteers can participate in the project is by donating their own recordings of howls from domestic dogs.



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Congratulations to SRE 2014 Undergrads and Teachers!

2013 SRE participant is interviewed about her research by the media.

A 2013 SRE participant is interviewed about her research by the media.

NIMBioS is pleased to announce the 20 participants selected for the 2014 Summer Research Experience (SRE) for undergraduates and teachers program. The program will run for eight weeks this summer from June 9-August 1. Participants will come from all over the country to work in teams with NIMBioS postdocs and UT faculty on research at the interface of mathematics and biology. To read more about this year’s SRE projects and participating mentors, click here. The roster for this year’s class of SRE participants is as follows:

Undergraduates (with their majors and institutions)

  • Vivian Anyaeche (Biology, Fisk University)
  • Brittany Boribong (Biomathematics, University of Scranton)
  • Michelle Cruz (Biotechnology, California State University-San Marcos)
  • Veronica Go (Biochemistry and Statistics, University of Tennessee-Knoxville)
  • Winode Handagama (Biochemistry, Maryville College)
  • Fangyuan Hong (Mathematics and Environmental Studies, Mount Holyoke College)
  • Tashika James (Biology, LeMoyne Owen College)
  • Nitin Krishna (Mathematics, Western Kentucky University)
  • Taylor Kuramoto (Mathematics, Augsburg College)
  • John Marken (Mathematics, College of William & Mary)
  • Marina Massaro (Mathematics, State University of New York at Geneseo)
  • Margaret McDaniel (Mathematics and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Tennessee-Knoxville)
  • Kelly Moran (Mathematics (Biology Concentration), Clemson University)
  • Taylor Nelson (Environmental Science, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)
  • Nicole Rooks (Mathematics, University of Tennessee-Chattanooga)
  • John Shamshoian (Mathematics, California Polytechnic State University)
  • Brian Whyte (Ecology, State University of New York at Plattsburgh)
  • Benjamin Roberson (Computer Science, University of Tennessee-Knoxville)

Teachers (with their subject area and school)

  • Megan Comer (Chemistry, Campbell County High School)
  • Rebecca McDowell (Mathematics, West High School)
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NIMBioS Director Tapped to Lead National STEM Education Effort

Louis Gross NIMBioS Director

Louis Gross
NIMBioS Director

Congratulations to NIMBioS Director Louis Gross who will lead the Biology Ideas Lab for the National Science Foundation, March 30-April 4, in Leesburg, Va.

Three five-day NSF Ideas Labs —one for biology, one for engineering and one for geosciences—are being held this month through April 4 in the Washington, D.C., area. Each lab involves participants from various disciplines and backgrounds, as well as prospective employers and representatives of scientific and professional societies. The goals of the labs are to incubate innovative approaches to improve undergraduate STEM education and produce research agendas that address workforce development needs.

“A well-prepared and innovative STEM workforce is critical to our nation’s health and economy,” said Gross, also a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “NSF’s priorities of educating students to become leaders and innovators in STEM fields and of encouraging the public to be scientifically literate depend on the quality of undergraduate education.”

The biology lab aims to improve quantitative and computational skill sets of the future biological science workforce. The engineering lab will look at ways to develop a more diverse workforce. The geosciences lab seeks to improve access to related education.

“These labs will be intensive, engaging and free-thinking so that the participants are able to fully immerse themselves in the dialogue in order to come up with novel and bold approaches,” said Gross, whose role as director will be to help define topics and aid discussions at the event.



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Postdoc Puppeteers: NIMBioS Supports Darwin Day 2014

Greetings from Knoxville! NIMBioS postdocs Clemente Aguilar (left) and Jiang Jiang (right) assume Wallace and Darwin disguises.

Greetings from Knoxville! NIMBioS postdocs Clemente Aguilar (left) and Jiang Jiang (right) cleverly disguised as Wallace and Darwin.

NIMBioS postdocs Clemente Aguilar and Jiang Jiang (pictured incognito, left to right) donned Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace costumes and braved the frigid temperatures on Market Square in Knoxville on Friday to celebrate Darwin Day.

The life-sized puppets were just one of the many activities that NIMBioS helped support as a part of the annual “Darwin Day” celebrations at UTK, which began Jan. 24 and run until Darwin’s birthday on Feb. 12. An international celebration, Darwin Day is used as an opportunity for education and outreach activities in evolutionary biology. Established in 1997, UTK boasts one of the oldest student-run Darwin Day organizations in the world. The theme of this year’s Darwin Day centers on Wallace, Darwin’s colleague known as the “father of biogeography” who independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection but who was overshadowed by the more well-known Darwin.

Teachers learn evolution lessons from Biology in a Box at the Darwin Day Teacher Workshop.

Teachers learn evolution lessons from Biology in a Box at the Darwin Day Teacher Workshop.

NIMBioS also co-hosted the Darwin Day Teacher Workshop on Saturday, Feb. 8 at NIMBioS, which provided local teachers with new tips and techniques for teaching evolution. Middle and high school teachers as well as teaching staff from local university and community colleges participated. Co-sponsored by UT’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, the workshop included Biology in a Box activities, teacher discussion, resource sharing, as well as lunch and door prizes.

Postdoc Nick Matzke meets William Jennings Bryan.

Postdoc Nick Matzke meets William Jennings Bryan during the Darwin Day visit to Dayton, TN.

Other NIMBioS postdocs have lent their expertise to Darwin Day activities. Jeremy Beaulieu will lead a Q&A on evolution tomorrow, which will be televised campus-wide from 5 – 6 p.m. on the Freethought Forum (Comcast channel 12, Charter channel 6, live streaming at: http://www.ctvknox.org/ ).

On Saturday, Jan. 25, postdoc Nick Matzke, a former communications director for the National Center for Science Education, led a tour of the historic Dayton, TN courthouse that was the site of the infamous Scopes trail. Matzke also presented a talk at the Teacher Workshop about defending teaching of evolution in schools.

For more information, including a complete schedule of events, visit the event’s website.

[Updated 2/10/14 @14:48 p.m. -- Beaulieu's Q&A has been canceled.]

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Biology in a Box Aligned to Mathematics Common Core

In the "Of Skulls and Teeth" unit, there are many activities involving the counting, classifying and measuring of different aspects of animal skulls, including teeth, in order to better understand the adaptations of organisms.

In the “Of Skulls and Teeth” unit, there are many activities involving the counting, classifying and measuring of different aspects of animal skulls, including teeth, in order to better understand the adaptations of organisms.

Teachers of K-12 looking for hands-on, memorable enrichment activities for teaching the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics need look no further — the alignment for Biology in a Box is now complete and published online.

Forty-five states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories have adopted the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM). The effort to draft new K-12 curriculum standards in both mathematics and language arts was led through the cooperation of many state government agencies, including the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. As the CCSSM emphasizes mathematical practice skills of problem solving, critical thinking and modeling, many of the quantitative, inquiry-based activities in Biology in a Box give students opportunities to apply their mathematical thinking skills to scientific questions. Activities involving probability and statistics are also found in the boxes, with applications to genetics in the “It’s in Your Genes” unit and to visualizing and quantifying variation found in nature in the “Everything Varies” unit.

In this example of possible student work from the "Of Skulls and Teeth" unit, the objective is to use graphing skills and calculating proportions to visualize the distribution of teeth types in different organisms.

In this example of possible student work from the “Of Skulls and Teeth” unit, the objective is to use graphing skills and calculating proportions to visualize the distribution of teeth types in different organisms.

The effort to incorporate quantitative activities into Biology in a Box began when NIMBioS began collaborating with the long-running University of Tennessee outreach program in 2009. Since then, all 10 units on themes ranging from “Fossils” to “Behavior” have been revised to incorporate quantitative thinking, aligned to the then-current Tennessee math standards. During the 2013-2014 school year, Tennessee is finishing a full transition to the CCSSM. VolsTeach undergraduate intern Kelsey Bratton recently completed the project to update the Biology in a Box standards alignment to the Common Core. We are excited that this means the activities can more easily be integrated into math classrooms throughout the country.

All Biology in a Box activity books are freely available online. Currently the boxes with materials are in over 90 school systems in the state of Tennessee as well as several surrounding states.

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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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