Vazquez to Receive 2016 Blackwell-Tapia Prize

Dr. Mariel Vazquez 2016 Blackwell-Tapia Prize Recipient

Dr. Mariel Vazquez
2016 Blackwell-Tapia Prize Recipient

KNOXVILLE — The National Blackwell-Tapia Committee is pleased to announce that the 2016 Blackwell-Tapia Prize will be awarded to Mariel Vazquez, a professor in the departments of mathematics and of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of California, Davis.

The prize is awarded every other year in honor of the legacy of David H. Blackwell and Richard A. Tapia, two distinguished mathematical scientists who have been inspirations to more than a generation of African American, Latino/Latina, and Native American students and professionals in the mathematical sciences. The prize recognizes a mathematician who has contributed significantly to research in his or her field of expertise, and who has served as a role model for mathematical scientists and students from under-represented minority groups or has contributed in other significant ways to addressing the problem of the under-representation of minorities in math.

Vazquez is a pioneer in an emerging field called DNA topology, which applies pure math to untangle the biological mysteries of DNA. Application areas of her research include cancer treatment, drug design, understanding genome rearrangements after radiation damage or in cancer, and gaining insight into how genomes package in viruses and within cells and into how viral DNA (e.g., retroviruses, such as HIV) integrates into the host genome. Vazquez was an academic visitor in the biochemistry department at the University of Oxford, England, in 2006 and 2007 and was a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley in 2008. Vazquez was an academic visitor at the Cancer Research Center in Salamanca, Spain, and an academic visitor at the molecular biology department in the Center for Research and Development in Barcelona, Spain. Vazquez’s research has been supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and by the National Science Foundation (NSF). In 2012, she was one of only 96 scientists to receive a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from U.S. President Barack Obama. She was also the recipient of a NSF CAREER award in 2011 for her efforts conducting innovative research and finding creative ways to integrate research and education.

Vazquez has worked passionately to increase diversity in the mathematical sciences at all levels. As a professor at UC Davis since 2014, Vazquez mentors graduate students, has developed an interdisciplinary course in “Analyzing DNA Structure with Mathematical and Computational Methods,” and has served as co-PI on a grant from the National Security Agency to increase the mathematics and statistics components of the 2015-2016 annual conferences of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. She has also volunteered for other public outreach, including lecturing for the UC Davis Math Circle for middle and high school students. Before joining UC Davis, Vazquez was on the faculty at San Francisco State University where she mentored undergraduates and graduate students and co-founded the elementary school level component of the San Francisco Math Circles.

The prize will be presented at the Ninth Blackwell-Tapia Conference and Awards Ceremony on Oct. 28-29, 2016, at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The conference is co-hosted by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) and the Statistical and Applied Mathematical Sciences Institute (SAMSI). The conference includes scientific talks, poster presentations, panel discussions and ample opportunities for discussion and interaction. Participants will come from all career stages and will represent institutions of all sizes across the country, including Puerto Rico.

The idea for a conference honoring Blackwell and Tapia came from Carlos Castillo-Chavez, who was a member of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute’s (MSRI) Human Resources Advisory Committee and a professor of mathematics at Cornell University at the time. Chavez, now a professor at Arizona State University, secured funding from Cornell for the first Blackwell-Tapia Conference in 2000. The award was established two years later under the leadership of Castillo-Chavez and MSRI Director David Eisenbud. Since 2002, the NSF Mathematical Sciences Institutes have served as conference sponsors and hosts. For the 2016 conference, NIMBioS received a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to help support the event. Subsequent conferences were held at MSRI (2002), the Institute for Pure & Applied Mathematics (2004 and 2014), the Institute for Mathematics and its Applications (2006), SAMSI (2008), the Mathematical Biosciences Institute (2010), and the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics (2012).

The Blackwell-Tapia Prize was offered for the first time in 2002. Recipients exemplify the high standards of research and service to under-represented minority communities recognized by this award. Past prize recipients include Arlie Petters, Benjamin Powell Professor of Mathematics, Physics, and Business Administration at Duke University (2002); Rodrigo Bañuelos, Professor of Mathematics at Purdue University (2004); William Massey, Edwin S. Wiley Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton University (2006); Juan Meza, Dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California at Merced (2008); Trachette Jackson, Professor of Mathematics and head of the Jackson Cancer Modeling Group at the University of Michigan (2010); Ricardo Cortez, Pendergraft William Larkin Duren Professor of Mathematics at Tulane University (2012) and Jacqueline Hughes-Oliver, Professor of Statistics, North Carolina State University (2014).

The National Blackwell-Tapia Committee selected the prize recipient. Committee co-chairs are the 2012 and 2014 prize recipients Cortez and Hughes-Oliver. The other committee members are Castillo-Chavez and Eisenbud, as well as Lloyd Douglas, University of North Carolina; Deanna Haunsperger, Carleton College; Suzanne Lenhart, NIMBioS and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Bob Megginson, University of Michigan; Kelly Sturner, NIMBioS; and Sherry Woodley, Arizona State University.

As recipient of the 2016 prize, Vazquez now joins the selection committee for the next Blackwell-Tapia prize.


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Lenhart Receives Cox Professorship

Suzanne Lenhart Associate Director for Education and Outreach

Suzanne Lenhart
Associate Director for Education and Outreach

Congratulations to NIMBioS Associate Director for Education and Outreach Suzanne Lenhart who has been named a James R. Cox Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

A professor of mathematics, Lenhart has been affiliated with NIMBioS since its founding in 2008.

The three-year Cox award will provide Lenhart with a stipend of $25,500 to support her research. Lenhart is an applied mathematician with research publications spanning several areas of biology including HIV, TB, bioreactors, bioeconomics, cardiac function, population dynamics, disease modeling, and resource management. Cox recipients are chosen by a committee for their excellence in teaching, scholarship, and service.

Lenhart follows in the footsteps of other NIMBioS leaders who have earned the honor, NIMBioS Director Emeritus Louis Gross and NIMBioS Associate Director for Postdoctoral Activities Paul Armsworth.

Visit for the UT press release.

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Announcing the New Roster of Participants for the 2016 Summer Research Experience at NIMBioS


Two students work on developing mathematical models for their project during last year’s SRE at NIMBioS. (Photo Credit: News Sentinel)

NIMBioS is pleased to announce the 16 undergraduates selected for its highly competitive 2016 Summer Research Experience (SRE) program. Participants were selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants. The program runs for eight weeks, from June 6-July 29. 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.

2016 SRE participants and their assigned team projects are as follows:

Joshua Darville (Fisk Univ.); Elman Gonzales (East Tennessee State Univ.); and Jan Siess (Rutgers Univ.) will team up on a project to investigate a molecular process called allostery, integral in many biological functions, such as oxygen binding, enzyme regulation, and immune response.

Alana Cooper (Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville); Emily Horton (Lynchburg College); and Kelly Reagan (Elon Univ.) will work on a project using dynamic modeling to better understand how human emotions unfold over time.

Samuel Iselin (Valparaiso Univ.); Howsikan Kugathasan (Fisk Univ.); and Jacob Miller (Univ. of Kentucky) will work on a project to develop computer games for teaching biology.

Jeff DeSalu (The Ohio State Univ.); Morganne Igoe (Univ. of the Minnesota-Twin Cities); Joey Moran (Unity College); and Theresa Sheets (Univ. of Maryland-Baltimore County) will team up on a project to investigate the effects of different landscapes and resources on hantavirus spread in mice populations.

Alanna Gary (Univ. of Chicago); Vera Liu (Rice Univ.); and Penny Wu (Houghton College) will work on a project using statistical filters to follow fast organelle movements in plant cells


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Welcome New Evaluation Associate

Sondra LoRe NIMBioS Evaluation Associate

Sondra LoRe
NIMBioS Evaluation Associate

NIMBioS welcomes new staff member Sondra LoRe who will serve as Evaluation Associate in NIMBioS Evaluation Services. LoRe brings nearly 20 years experience in education, instruction, educational leadership, and evaluation with pre-K-20 programs and STEM schools. She has also served as a Tennessee state teacher evaluator for 16 years. LoRe has a B.A. in Economics from the University of Massachusetts, a M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and an Ed.S. in Educational Leadership from Lincoln Memorial University. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Evaluation, Statistics, and Measurement Program in the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

NIMBioS offers external evaluation services to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) research and education sector, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary programs. NIMBioS Associate Director for Evaluation Services Pamela Bishop heads the program.

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Congratulations to Dr. Brothers!

NIMBioS Associate Director for Diversity Enhancement Ernest Brothers has been elected president of the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools.


Dr. Ernest Brothers

Brothers is the associate dean of UT’s Graduate School, director of the Office of Graduate Training and Mentorship, and adjunct assistant professor in political science.

As president-elect, Brothers will advise the CSGS president and executive committee on matters pertaining to the next annual meeting, when he will assume the presidency.

CSGS is composed of public and private institutions in the southern region of the United States that grant master’s degrees and doctorates. The organization promotes the exchange of ideas and best practices in graduate education and research and maintains a close liaison with the Council of Graduate Schools, the premier national organization supporting the advancement of graduate education.

NIMBioS’ chief goal is to enhance the cadre of researchers capable of interdisciplinary efforts across mathematics and biology. In so doing, NIMBioS is committed to 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. Read more about our STEM diversity enhancement activities at

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Teachers Explore Local Fossils with Paleontologists

Tennessee teachers inspect and categorize fossils at the Darwin Day Teacher Workshop

Tennessee teachers inspect and categorize fossils at the Darwin Day Teacher Workshop

Fossils and paleontology were the special topics this year for an exciting teacher workshop hosted at NIMBioS, the final event for Darwin Day Tennessee festivities. Lesson plans for K-12 on local fossils, developed by paleontologist Alycia Stigall of Ohio State University, were featured at the event. Thirteen Tennessee teachers attended, including a group that road tripped from three hours away. The workshop was planned and organized by UT paleontology graduate students Jen Bauer and Sarah Sheffield, and many volunteers helped on the day by demonstrating lesson plans and interacting with participants. Teachers took home many goodies: lesson plans, HHMI and NCSE materials on teaching evolutionary topics, and free fossil kits of donated local fossils that were assembled by the organizers.

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You’re Invited to Celebrate Darwin!

DarwinBirthday3Today marks the kick-off of the annual Darwin Day festivities at UT, a month-long celebration all things Darwin (and Wallace). Festivities kick off this evening with the giant Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace puppets. Look for them on Market Square and other spots in downtown Knoxville.

UT’s Darwin Day, established in 1997, is one of the oldest student-run Darwin Day organizations in the world. An international celebration, Darwin Day is used to promote the understanding of evolution and its importance as a unifying concept in biology.

Once again, NIMBioS is co-sponsoring the activities, which include lectures, a cake contest, a daily information booth on UT’s Pedestrian Walkway, and a birthday party for Darwin on Feb. 12 at McClung Museum. He will be 207 years old.

To mark this year’s theme of paleontology, Neil Shubin, best-selling author of Your Inner Fish, will give the keynote address at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 11, in Cox Memorial Auditorium. The world-renowned paleontologist will discuss our 3.5-billion-year journey of evolution on earth and how humans came to be. Shubin will sign books after the discussion.

Specific NIMBioS-related activities include a lecture, “Breathing Life into Fossils: Living Fishes and Salamanders Provide Clues to the Evolutionary Invasion of Land,” given at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 10 by NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Sandy Kawano, as well as a teacher workshop on Saturday, Feb. 13 at NIMBioS to provide local teachers with new tips and techniques for teaching evolution.

For a complete schedule of events, visit the Darwin Day website.



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Simon Levin Wins National Medal of Science

National Medal of Science recipient Simon Levin delivers a lecture to NIMBioS postdocs.

National Medal of Science recipient Simon Levin delivers a lecture to NIMBioS postdocs.

Congratulations to Simon Levin who has been awarded the National Medal of Science for his work unraveling ecological complexity using observational data and mathematical modeling.

Levin is Princeton University’s George M. Moffett Professor of Biology and Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Levin visited NIMBioS in 2012 to meet with postdocs and gave a seminar as a Postdoctoral Fellows Invited Distinguished Visitor. His topic was “Evolutionary perspectives on discounting, public goods and collective behavior.” 

Levin’s research focuses on complexity, particularly how large-scale patterns — such as at the ecosystem level — are maintained by small-scale behavioral and evolutionary factors at the level of individual organisms. With research topics primarily related to ecology, other topics Levin has analyzed include conservation, financial and economic systems, and the dynamics of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance.

“Simon has made so many outstanding scientific contributions. It is great to see him receiving recognition that he so richly deserves,” said Paul Armsworth, NIMBioS associate director for postdoctoral activities. “As well as his numerous important research contributions, Simon has been a tremendous champion for, and supporter of, mathematical biology at large, and of the NIMBioS community in particular.”

Levin will be honored at a White House ceremony along with eight fellow Medal of Science recipients and eight recipients of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

The National Medal of Science was created by statute in 1959 and is administered for the White House by the National Science Foundation. Awarded annually, the Medal recognizes individuals who have made outstanding contributions to science and engineering. According to the award announcement, the President receives nominations from a committee of Presidential appointees based on their extraordinary knowledge in and contributions to chemistry, engineering, computing, mathematics, and the biological, behavioral/social, and physical sciences.

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NIMBioS Collaboration Targets HIV Infection

HIV-virus-WEBResearch arising from a recent collaboration with a short-term visitor to NIMBioS and one of our senior personnel members has resulted in a publication in PLOS Computational Biology that investigates immune response to HIV infection.

“Broad CTL Response in Early HIV Infection Drives Multiple Concurrent CTL Escapes” was the result of research by Sivan Leviyang (Mathematics and Statistics, Georgetown Univ) and Vitaly Ganusov (Microbiology, Univ. of Tennessee).

Through an analysis of patient datasets and a novel statistical method, the study aids understanding of the role of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) in HIV infection. During HIV infection, CTLs identify and target HIV-infected cells by recognizing parts of viral proteins called epitopes. Yet, due to HIV’s rapid replication, the virus may also accumulate mutations, which reduce CTLs’ effectiveness in recognizing infected cells. Such mutations, referred to as CTL escape, are a major problem in the development of an effective vaccine.

Studies in the last decade have shown that CTL responses concurrently target multiple HIV epitopes, yet the effect on HIV dynamics and evolution is not well understood. The new study revisits these questions, and with a re-analysis of the escape data, finds that a vaccine that induces a broad CTL response targeting multiple viral epitopes should limit viral escape and provide control of HIV infection.

The paper can be found at

Citation: Leviyang S, Ganusov VV (2015) Broad CTL Response in Early HIV Infection Drives Multiple Concurrent CTL Escapes. PLoS Comput Biol 11(10):e1004492. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004492


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2015 NIMBioS Undergraduate Conference Attendance Tops 100

The graduate school and career advice panelists speaking to a packed room.

The graduate school and career advice panelists spoke to a packed room at the 7th Annual NIMBioS Undergraduate Research Conference at the Interface of Mathematics and Biology.

With topics ranging from modeling an Ebola outbreak to studies of pathogenic genetic mutations, the seventh annual Undergraduate Research Conference at the Interface of Mathematics and Biology was a success with more than 130 undergraduates and faculty participating. More than 50 presentations — talks and posters — were given by student researchers from all over the country, and many of the projects were presented by interdisciplinary student teams.

While new participants come every year, there are also those that love to return again and again. Richard Schugart, an associate professor of mathematics from Western Kentucky University and currently on sabbatical at NIMBioS, observed that he has attended and brought students to the conference every year since it began in 2009.

Maria Siopsis, an associate professor of mathematics at Maryville College, explained that one reason she returns is because it gives her many ideas for examples she use with her students.

University of Tennessee Associate Professor of Ecology and NIMBioS Associate Director for Postdoctoral Activities Paul Armsworth finds the conference a great venue for recruiting top graduate students. Several successful students currently in his department were conference participants at one time.

The program included keynote and featured talks, a graduate school showcase, and a career and graduate school panel. Keynote speaker Robert Smith? from the University of Ottawa spoke about “Neglected Tropical Diseases and the Next Disease to be Eradicated.” A humorous talk on the second day by Smith? engaged students in how to model a zombie outbreak using the same mathematics one might use for other kinds of epidemics.

Later, featured speaker Rachel Lenhart, a medical student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke about her use of computational approaches to help surgeons better understand and refine their treatment of children with motor disabilities.

The photos say it all! Check out our Flickr photo album from the conference. Also, a steady stream of tweets from the conference provide some great highlights.

Make sure to save the date for next year’s conference: Oct. 8-9, 2016!

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