NIMBioS Team Receives Best Publication Award

A paper on epidemic disease dynamics by a group of NIMBioS-associated researchers has won the prestigious Lord Robert May Best Paper Prize from the Journal of Biological Dynamics.

“The impact of spatial arrangements on epidemic disease dynamics and intervention strategies” was published in March 2016. Co-authors are Michael Kelly, a former NIMBioS graduate research assistant; Joseph H. Tien, who has been involved in several NIMBioS education and outreach events; Marisa C. Eisenberg, who has been an organizer of research and education and outreach events; and Suzanne Lenhart, NIMBioS Associate Director for Education and Outreach and a Chancellor’s Professor of Mathematics at UT.

Kelly is currently an assistant professor of mathematics at Transylvania University in Kentucky; Tien is an associate professor of mathematics at The Ohio State University; and Eisenberg is an assistant professor of epidemiology and mathematics at the University of Michigan.

The paper investigates the role of spatial arrangements on the spread and management of cholera, particularly the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti. The researchers examined the effect of human and pathogen movement on optimal vaccination strategies. They make vaccination recommendations based on the model. Among the findings are that more vaccinations can be administered when outbreaks occur downstream rather than upstream, as the directional flow of rivers affects pathogen movement.

The paper is available as open access at

The prize is awarded at the biannual International Conference on Mathematical Modeling and Analysis of Populations in Biological Systems (ICMA), which will be held at the University of Arizona in October. The authors are invited to give a talk on the paper at the conference. They also receive a monetary award, free textbooks and a subscription to the Journal.

Citation: Kelly MR, Tien JH, Eisenberg MC, Lenhart S. 2015. The impact of spatial arrangements on epidemic disease dynamics and intervention strategies. Journal of Biological Dynamics.

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Gross Named Fellow of Society for Mathematical Biology

Dr. Louis J. Gross
NIMBioS Director

Congrats to NIMBioS Director Louis J. Gross on being named a Fellow in the inaugural class of Fellows of the Society for Mathematical Biology (SMB).

A distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), Gross also directs of UT’s Institute for Environmental Modeling. His research focuses on computational and mathematical ecology, with applications to plant ecology, conservation biology, natural resource management, and landscape ecology.

The SMB Fellows Program honors members of the Society who are recognized by the scientific and scholarly community as distinguished for their contributions to the discipline. Up to two fellows will be named every two years at the annual SMB meeting in July. Gross was among 18 Fellows of the Society named in the inaugural class.

The SMB promotes the development and dissemination of research and education at the interface between the mathematical and biological sciences. The Society serves a diverse community of researchers and educators in academia, in industry, and in government agencies throughout the world. Through its awards program, the Society honors its members and recognizes excellence in mathematical biology. For more information on the Fellows of the Society, visit

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A Predator-Prey Model of Poverty Traps, New Paper from Ngonghala

Calistus Ngonghala (Mathematical Biology, Univ. of Florida) returned to NIMBioS last month for a short-term visit to collaborate with Olivia Prosper (Mathematics, Univ. of Kentucky). Ngonghala’s paper on poverty traps was recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Former NIMBioS postdoc Calistus Ngonghala has published a new paper that draws on economic, ecological and epidemiological models to examine the underlying drivers of rural poverty.

“General ecological models for human subsistence, heath and poverty,” published this month in Nature Ecology & Evolution, combine an economic model of growth accumulation with epidemiological and population ecological models. The authors show that the dynamics of poverty can be framed as predator-prey relationships, and that feedbacks between the biological and economic systems in this ecological-economic food web can lead to a state of persistent poverty.

The study finds that disease transmission and recovery rates are the most “consistently important” in determining long-term health and wealth dynamics. The findings are consistent with other studies that show improving health systems promotes economic growth and alleviates poverty.

The study was highlighted in the journal’s “News & Views” section in a commentary by Chris Desmond entitled, “The ecology of rural poverty.”

A NIMBioS postdoc from 2011-2013, Ngonghala is now an assistant professor of mathematical biology at the University of Florida.

In a press review for the paper, Ngonghala recounts his personal experiences of rural poverty growing up in Cameroon Africa that have inspired his research pursuits. “My family and friends had subsistence lifestyles, and my community suffered from a continuous burden of deadly diseases, such as malaria and HIV. These kinds of models are an essential step towards understanding persistent poverty and finding solutions for long-term sustainable development,” Ngonghala writes.

In a 2013 profile of Ngonghala in Scientific American, he elaborates on his childhood experiences and the reasons why he became a mathematician. The profile was one of series of profiles of mathematicians and computer scientists invited to participate in the 2013 Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

Ngonghala returned to NIMBioS last month on a short-term research visit to collaborate with Olivia Prosper, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Kentucky. The research evaluates the impact of human movement on the success of bednet programs for malaria control.

We always look forward to visits from former postdocs. Congratulations Calistus!

Citation: Ngonghala CN et al. 2017. General ecological models for human subsistence, heath and poverty. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0221-8.

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NIMBioS Welcomes Dr. Gross

KNOXVILLE—Louis J. Gross has been named the new NIMBioS director, effective July 1, 2017.

Gross is a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the founding director of NIMBioS and director of the Institute for Environmental Modeling (TIEM). His research focuses on computational and mathematical ecology, with applications to plant ecology, conservation biology, natural resource management, and landscape ecology.

While at NIMBioS, Gross will continue his responsibilities as TIEM director and as a UT faculty member.

Colleen B. Jonsson, who has served as director since January 2015, will be moving to the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis where she has accepted a faculty position as professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry, Van Vleet Chair of Excellence in Virology. She will also serve as director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory.

NIMBioS was founded in 2008 as a National Science Foundation (NSF) Synthesis Center supported through NSF’s Biological Sciences Directorate via a Cooperative Agreement with UT Knoxville totaling more than $35 million over ten years.

Since its first event in spring 2009, NIMBioS has engaged more than 6,000 scientists and experts from over 50 countries in over 400 projects proposed by the science community. NIMBioS activities have led to the publication of over 700 peer-reviewed scientific articles in a variety of disciplines, from anthropology to zoology. The institute has also helped to fund more than 30 grant proposals, totaling nearly $10 million, submitted by NIMBioS participants following involvement in NIMBioS activities. One of the outcomes of NIMBioS is the National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research, which collaborates on program evaluation with a wide array of projects around the country.

Read more.

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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

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:

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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

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.

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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

For more information about the UT-NIMBioS program and how to apply, visit the web page at

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