SRE Students Win Award for ComFlo

(From L to R) College students Ashish Gauli, Nathan Wikle and Ryan Yan have developed a website tool to help in the fight against invasive species.

(From L to R) College students Ashish Gauli, Nathan Wikle and Ryan Yan have developed a website tool to help in the fight against invasive species.

Congratulations to Ashish Gauli, Nathan Wikle and Ryan Yan — the three undergraduate students who developed mapping tool ComFlo as a part of their 2015 Summer Research Experience at NIMBioS. The team has been invited to attend the NatureServe EcoInformatics Workshop in Washington, DC, in December.

An interactive website that can be used to visualize the domestic transport of most common commodities in the United States, ComFlo’s chief purpose is to help users track the potential spread of invasive species via shipping routes.

The team entered the tool, integrated with an invasion simulation model, in the student competition to attend the workshop, “Promoting Synergy in the Innovative Use of Environmental Data,” which is co-sponsored by NatureServe and the US Geological Survey with funding from the National Science Foundation. According to the workshop website, the workshop aims “to identify areas of collaboration within the Federal Government and among relevant private sector organizations in advanced uses of environmental data applied to forecasting and decision-making for the sustainability of biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

Each of the students wins a $1,000 travel award as a part of the competition.

ComFlo was as a product of the students’ research on the SRE project, “Ships, Ports, Invasions and Math: Invasive Species Movements through Global Shipping Routes,” with faculty mentors Louis Gross and Dan Simberloff.

As the students began working on their summer project, they discovered there wasn’t a good tool to help visualize the network, so they set out to create it themselves.

“We were really motivated by the fact that we hadn’t found a tool that visualized the data,” said co-developer Gauli, a computer science major at Fisk University. “We really wanted something that was a web-based interactive system where users can change what they want to visualize and drill down big data to the individual level shipping information.”

Wikle attends Truman State University and Yan attends the College of William and Mary.

The eight-week SRE program last summer included 15 undergraduates and two high school teachers who worked in teams with faculty mentors on five different modeling projects. For full details on NIMBioS’ summer research program, visit

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Lenhart Receives Lorayne Lester Award


Suzanne Lenhart, Associate Director for Education and Outreach

Congratulations to NIMBioS Associate Director for Education and Outreach Suzanne Lenhart who has received the Lorayne W. Lester Award for 2015 from UTK’s College of Arts and Sciences. The purpose of the annual award is to recognize a faculty member who has demonstrated outstanding service to UTK, the College of Arts and Sciences, and its constituencies locally, statewide and nationally. A mathematics professor at UTK, Lenhart will receive a $1,000 award and plaque. A reception and dinner will be held in Lenhart’s honor on Dec. 1 at the Holiday Inn on the World’s Fair Park.


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Bishop Joins NIMBioS Leadership Team

Dr. Pamela Bishop Associate Director for STEM Education

Dr. Pamela Bishop
Associate Director for STEM Education

NIMBioS is pleased to announce the promotion of Dr. Pamela Bishop to Associate Director for STEM Evaluation.

A new offering at NIMBioS this year, NIMBioS Evaluation Services is geared toward providing external evaluation services to the STEM research and education sector, particularly interdisciplinary programs. Offering independent, rigorous and transparent formative and summative evaluation services specifically targeted toward the program goals, the NIMBioS evaluation team is led by Bishop and includes graduate research assistant Lakmal Walpitage and database specialist Ana Richters. A postdoctoral fellowship in evaluation services has also been created.

NIMBioS uses a Context, Input, Process, Product (CIPP) systems-based model for evaluation. The CIPP approach considers the organization as a whole, assessing the quality and significance of outcomes while still examining the inputs and processes that lead to these outcomes. The approach incorporates new research methods, such as bibliometrics, network analysis, and mapping of scientific output.

The team has already undertaken several projects, including landing a $299,990 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a new tool to assess student learning in mathematics.

“Rigorous evaluation of new approaches in the training of the current and the next-generation of academic students is critical for advancement of student learning in science, technology, and mathematics, and for guiding how to promote interdisciplinarity across these fields. We are fortunate to do this under the considerable expertise and guidance of Pam Bishop,” said NIMBioS Director Colleen Jonsson.

Formerly NIMBioS Evaluation Manager, Bishop has been leading NIMBioS’ evaluation efforts since the institute was established in 2008. In addition to joining the NIMBioS leadership team, Bishop has been appointed adjunct professor in Evaluation, Statistics, and Measurement Program in UTK’s Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling.

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NIMBioS Workshop Inspires New Theme Issue

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.48.29 AM

new theme issue published this week in Philosophical Transactions B was inspired in part by the recent NIMBioS Workshop on Evolution and Warfare.

“Solving the puzzle of collective action through inter-individual differences: evidence from primates and humans” is compiled and edited by Luke Glowacki, Sergey Gavrilets and Chris von Ruedenheon. Glowacki and Gavrilets co-organized the workshop.

The papers contributed to the theme issue evaluate how individual differences affect the propensity to cooperate and how differences can catalyze others’ likelihood of cooperation, the editors write in the introduction.

“All together, the papers in this theme issue provide a more complete picture of collective action, by embracing the reality of inter-individual variation and its multiple roles in the success or failure of collective action,” the editors explain.

Included are papers emphasizing the relationship between individual decisions and socio-ecological context, particularly the effect of group size.

A number of papers are related to the topics of the NIMBioS workshop held in September.

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Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Awards Grant to NIMBioS for 2016 Blackwell-Tapia Conference

The Blackwell-Tapia Prize and Conference honor the legacy of two trailblazing minority mathematicians. Source:

The Blackwell-Tapia Prize and Conference honors the legacy of two trailblazing minority mathematicians.

NIMBioS’ plan to host the 2016 Blackwell-Tapia Conference and Awards Ceremony, an event focused on fostering the careers of minority groups underrepresented in the mathematical sciences, received a big boost this month from a $26,364 award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The 2016 Blackwell-Tapia Conference and Awards Ceremony, which NIMBioS will co-host with SAMSI, will be the ninth conference since 2000. The conference is held bi-annually, with the location rotating among NSF Mathematics Institutes. The conference and prize honors David Blackwell, the first African- American member of the National Academy of Science, and Richard Tapia, winner of the National Medal of Science in 2010, two seminal figures who inspired a generation of African-American, Native American and Latino/Latina students to pursue careers in mathematics. The Blackwell-Tapia Prize recognizes a mathematician who has contributed significantly to research in his or her area of expertise and who has served as a role model for mathematical scientists and students from underrepresented minority groups or has contributed in other significant ways to addressing the program of underrepresentation of minorities in math.

Conference goals are to:
•    Recognize and showcase mathematical excellence by minority researchers
•    Recognize and disseminate successful efforts to address under-representation
•    Inform students and mathematicians about career opportunities in mathematics, especially outside academia
•    Provide networking opportunities for mathematical researchers at all points in the higher education/career trajectory

Support from the Sloan Foundation will go toward speaker travel, facility fees, the awards banquet and other expenses that will make the event possible. Grant PI’s are NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator Kelly Sturner, Associate Director for Education & Outreach Suzanne Lenhart, and Evaluation Manager Pamela Bishop. While the Sloan Foundation has previously supported the Blackwell-Tapia Conference, this is NIMBioS’ first grant with the Sloan Foundation.

Conference planning is now underway! More information about the conference will become available in spring of 2016.

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Postdoc Collaboration Yields Results

Former NIMBioS postdocs (from left) Maud Lélu, Calistus Ngonghala, Orou Gaoue, and Jiang Jiang

Former NIMBioS postdocs (from left) Maud Lelu, Calistus Ngonghala, Orou Gaoue, and Jiang Jiang

Congratulations to four former NIMBioS postdoctoral fellows whose collaboration while at NIMBioS has come to fruition in a paper published last week in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

In the paper, lead author Orou Gaoue, along with Calistus Ngonghala, Jiang Jiang and Maud Lélu investigate the sustainability of combining harvesting of timber and non-timber forest products.

Although most studies focus on the sustainability of harvesting one of these products at a time, evidence suggests that several wild plants species are concurrently harvested for both timber and non-timber forest products. Bridging two fields of study on the sustainability of renewable resources harvest, the team developed a simple but novel model to determine the sustainability of combined harvest of timber and non-timber forest products. The model yields more conservative estimates of sustainable harvest limits than one would get from commonly used matrix projection models.

Gaoue, now an assistant professor in quantitative ecology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was pleased with the collaboration.

“At NIMBioS, we all developed the ability to work across disciplines and particularly how to collaborate with mathematicians,” he said.

For the paper, Gaoue developed the model ideas from an ecological standpoint and generated possible equations. Over several discussion sessions, the group strategized various ways for building the model and then developed the final equations. Ngonghala, now a postdoctoral fellow in Harvard University’s School of Public Health, solved the equations and conducted the stability analysis, while Jiang and Lélu developed the initial figures. Jiang is now a postdoc in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Biology at the University of Oklahoma, and Lélu is a postdoc in the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.

The citation is Gaoue OG, Ngonghala CN, Jiang J, Lélu M. 2015. Towards a mechanistic understanding of the synergistic e ffects of harvesting timber and non-timber forest products. Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

In other developments, Gaoue also recently published another paper as a result of his postdoctoral research at NIMBioS. “Transient dynamics reveal the importance of early life survival to the response of a tropical tree to harvest” appears in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The study makes the case that short-term assessment of population response to harvest by humans is more important than previously thought.

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Nose Picking and Other Notes from the Microbiome Workshop

microbial_350x248Did you know that nose picking is useful to science? Indeed, the nasal passages have been mined, so to speak, for new insights into pathogens and the microbiome. You can now view the dirty details about this topic and many others related to the fascinating world of the microbiome on the NIMBioS YouTube channel, which now has the full line-up of talks from our recent popular Investigative Workshop: Computational Advances in Microbiome Research.

Forty-three of the top thought leaders in computational microbial community analysis techniques attended the workshop by invitation. In addition to those attending in real time, nearly 100 virtual participants viewed a live stream of the talks. A lively discussion took place on Twitter with the hashtag #CAMRws.

Workshop goals were to foster new ideas, accelerate the pace of biological discovery through dissemination of cross-disciplinary techniques, provide a starting point for new collaborations, and to identify gaps for future funding opportunities. The July 27-28 workshop was co-organized by by Jill Banfield of the University of California, Berkeley, and Curtis Huttenhower of Harvard University.

Full details about the workshop can be found at More resources and discussions can be found on the workshop’s WordPress site at

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Math and Biology Interface Meets Steampunk

Students show off their labeled axis, ready for data

Students at STEMPunk show off their labeled axis, ready to graph some bird population data.

Science and math educators are always looking for innovative ways to make their messages memorable  — which is why NIMBioS participated in a unique outreach event for middle school kids this week blending STEM and the science fiction genre “steampunk.”

Andrew Isenhower talks to students about what their graph shows is happening to Northern Bobwhite populations in Tennessee

Andrew Isenhower talks to students about what their graph shows is happening to Northern Bobwhite populations in Tennessee

Organized by UT engineering graduate student Caroline Bryson, the “STEMPunk” event had a festival atmosphere where students visited hands-on booths to interact with scientists, engineers and mathematicians, all in steampunk-themed costume. Steampunk is a science fiction genre that features steam-powered technology with 19th century style elements. About 35 students from all over the state, on campus for an engineering camp, participated in the event with their camp counselors and families.

Nels Johnson (center) helps students interpret their Eastern Bluebird population graph.

NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Nels Johnson (center) helps students interpret their Eastern Bluebird population graph.

NIMBioS’ booth “Math for the Birds” featured data about changing bird populations found in the previously published Discover Birds activity book. Andrew Isenhower, a UT graduate student in wildlife and fishery biology, collaborated and brought teaching specimens to display of Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Bobwhites, and a Wild Turkey tail fan and feet. After Andrew’s introduction to the birds Kelly Sturner, NIMBioS Education & Outreach Coordinator, introduced Breeding Bird Survey data for the three species. Suzanne Lenhart, NIMBioS Associate Director for Education & Outreach, and Nels Johnson, NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow, then joined in helping the students graph the data on enormous graphs on the floor. The axis were created using duct tape. Axis labels were arranged by the students and data points graphed. Then, data points were connected using a feather boa to show trends.

After a discussion of what the graphs showed was happening to bird populations over time, Andrew provided insight behind the patterns the students observed by talking about the challenges the species have faced due to land use changes, decreasing habitat, competition with invasive species, and also the benefits that some conservation efforts have had.

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Prepare to Collaborate! Here’s How to Do It Well

What does it take to run a successful collaborative meeting? As a NIMBioS participant or organizer of an activity, you will meet and work with scientists from a variety of fields. Cross-disciplinary research can produce exciting results, but it also presents unique communication challenges.

The following is excerpted from the introductory talk by Simon Kahan at the recent NIMBioS Investigative Workshop: Many-cell System Modeling. Kahan, a research scientist at the Northwest Institute for Advanced Computing, co-organized the three-day workshop. We share it here with permission from Kahan in hopes this model for effective collaboration may prove useful to you as a participant or organizer.


“A Preparatory Model for Collaboration”

When we meet, we will become a system of professionals with diverse expertise and a shared purpose, seated around a table, eager to collaborate. NIMBioS has made this possible, generously providing the necessary funding and facilities. We hope to make the most of this opportunity by advancing our purpose to the best of our abilities and by creating new directions or ideas that are more significant to the community than would be the additive sum of our typical individual contributions over three days. We do not yet know what that looks like. We have never before worked as this group. We will have only limited time together: time insufficient for the “forming, norming, storming, performing” phases of group development, perhaps insufficient even to remember the names of the other group members. Our hopes are therefore tempered by practical constraints.

To compensate somewhat, we can prepare ourselves. We can prepare by contemplating two roles each of us may take on during our meeting:

First, each of us may have a unique role as a participant. As a participant, we each will contribute our professional (subject) expertise. Expression of our ideas will induce others to respond and to build upon them. Through this process, we hope to create a shared understanding of what is, what challenges we face, and what actions are needed to further our purpose. Preparing to take on the role of participant means reviewing the purpose of the meeting, bringing to mind what we can contribute.

Second, each of us may take on a facilitative role. As a facilitator, we each have the opportunity to intervene in the system, adjusting the functioning of the group toward greater efficiency, as I will describe shortly. Some have described taking on concurrent roles of participant and facilitator as being “simultaneously on the dance floor and on the balcony [overlooking the dance floor].” Maintaining both perspectives is a difficult skill to master. Were we to select a person to facilitate only, we would likely lose their contribution as participant, and we would be challenged to identify enough participants with strong facilitation skills when in subgroups. Instead, we share responsibility for facilitation. We will each occasionally check-in from “the balcony” and then return to “the dance floor.” This choice sidesteps the need for an experienced facilitator. There is a large body of literature on collaboration, groups, and facilitation. More pragmatic than expecting group members to prepare by reading the literature is to present, as part of the meeting introduction, the following simple model for collaboration and corresponding interventions. It takes about ten minutes.

The Essential Components of Collaboration are illustrated in the figure below. These components are Task, Process, and Relationship, all of which manifest to some degree in every group member. The degree depends upon personality and circumstance.

The Essential Components of Collaboration

The Essential Components of Collaboration

Task is about getting things done. Group members for whom Task is key will feel satisfied when choices are made, actions are taken, and boxes are checked off. When those members are dissatisfied, they become impatient and may behave in ways that seem careless toward other group members. However, in the absence of Task, little is completed.

Process is about how the group structures its work. Group members for whom Process is key will feel most satisfied when the agenda is explicit, objectives are clearly stated, and time apportionments are respected. When these members are dissatisfied, they may demand that the group slow down or they may withdraw from participation altogether. The group may perceive them to be perfectionists. Without Process, the group risks wasting effort by solving the wrong problem or running out of time altogether due to mismanagement.

Relationship is about engaging all participants. Group members for whom Relationship is key will feel most satisfied when every group member appears engaged and satisfied. When these members are dissatisfied, they may become anxious and behave in ways that seem overly sensitive. Without Relationship, the benefit of collaboration will be suboptimal because group members’ expertise will not be fully used.

When all three components are in balance, we collaborate most effectively. That balance and the expertise required to pursue the group’s purpose is all that is needed to advance our shared purpose: no dedicated facilitator is required. For this reason, preparing to maintain balance of Relationship, Task, and Process is a worthwhile investment. Maintenance of balance is a skill requiring repeated effort to master, so having multiple group members intentionally exercising the skill is crucial.

Keeping this model in mind guides facilitation when checking-in on “the dance floor” from “the balcony.” We look for any three of the dysfunctions that indicate imbalance and intervene accordingly.

If our self or someone else seems impatient with progress, we can intervene on behalf of Task. An appropriate intervention requires creativity in response to the situation. Drawing attention toward ending the current phase of the process may address Task dysfunction. An example might be to suggest, “What other ideas are there? <pause> We seem to have collected all ideas, let’s vote!” Providing an impatient group member with something to do that serves this phase of the process serves both to address the dysfunction and provide relief to that group member: “Alex, would you be willing to write down the ideas as we all suggest them?”

If we notice a lack of direction, we can intervene on behalf of Process. Very often groups forgo Process in favor of discussion, leading to wandering. A reasonable intervention on behalf of Process that is never too early is, “Before we go any further, what is our agenda?” Even with agenda in place, groups wander. A direct intervention is appropriate and effective: “Wait! I think we are straying from the point.”

If we notice participation is imbalanced, Relationship may be an issue. However, the cause might just as well be differences in expertise in the particular topic or in engagement style (see below). What we aim to ensure is that those who have something to contribute, do contribute. We might then serve Relationship by intervening, “We haven’t heard from you for awhile: what are your thoughts?” Or, perhaps to someone who is going on at length, “Excuse me, we need to give others a chance to contribute, too.” Intervening on behalf of Relationship can be most socially awkward, but failure to do so risks suboptimal results.

Component Dysfunction Intervention
Task Stagnation


“What other ideas are there? <pause> We seem to have collected all ideas, let’s vote!”
“I volunteer to write down the ideas as you suggest them.”
Process Wandering


“Before we go further, what is our agenda?”
“I think we are straying from the point.”
Relationship Inequity “We haven’t heard from you: what are your thoughts?”
“Excuse me, we need to give others a chance to contribute, too.”

Regarding engagement style, some people can think creatively only when they are not listening. To ensure we include their contribution, we must have quiet times within the collaborative process. During those times, the process should entail individual thought and writing; simply asking participants to spend a minute writing down their ideas prior to brainstorming can facilitate increased contribution from introverts.

In summary, effective collaboration depends upon balance amongst its three components: Task, Process, and Relationship. That balance is rarely sustained without facilitative interventions. We can partially compensate for the absence of a professional facilitator by preparing our group members to occasionally step out onto “the balcony” to observe and intervene in “the dance floor” in an effort to restore balance. Even when few members do intervene, the mere awareness of the others may increase their receptivity, resulting in a smoother, more productive collaboration.

Ideas presented here are both a simplification and a synthesis of concepts in a larger body of work on group dynamics and collaboration. The particular R-P-T model resulted from experiences working with other students in cohort 17 of the Organization Systems Renewal program offered at Seattle University in 2010-12. The program is now offered through Pinchot University.


NIMBioS also has a few tips to offer. The following web pages provide detailed instructions for how to conduct a successful Working Group and Investigative Workshop. Each page describes what Working Group organizers and Workshop organizers should do beforeduring, and after meetings to make them successful.

We are always looking for new research to support! If you are interested in requesting support for a new Working Group or Workshop, the next deadline is September 1. All areas of research at the interface of biology and mathematics will be considered, but we are especially interested in activities expanding beyond the areas of research supported to date. Potential organizers of activities in areas of molecular biology, cell biology, network biology, immunology and systems biology are particularly encouraged to submit requests. For more information about how to submit your proposal, click here.

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NIMBioS Staff, Postdocs & Graduate Students Give Middle School Girls STEM Adventures!

Highlights from last week's Adventures in STEM Camp

Highlights from last week’s Adventures in STEM Camp

Sixteen middle school girls enjoyed a fun and exciting week of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) adventures last week during a day camp organized and hosted by NIMBioS and the engineering center at the University of Tennessee called CURENT.

Girls toured NIMBioS and designed and printed 3D models of real flowers. They explored the world of mathematical modeling through activities such as acting out a predator-prey-resource model in a game called “Oh Deer!” and exploring a similar model in Netlogo in the computer lab.

NIMBioS graduate fellows Ben Levy and Christine Dumoulin and NIMBioS postdoctoral fellow Caroline Farrior assisted throughout the week. The girls interviewed Farrior about her science career as well as interviewing NIMBioS postdoctoral fellows Sandy Kawano and Angie Peace, NIMBioS Associate Director for Education & Outreach Suzanne Lenhart, and NIMBioS Web Analyst Jane Comiskey.

A field trip to the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN was included followed by a tour of the University of Tennessee Veterinary School and hospital. CURENT provided many activities for the girls about electricity and renewable energy including building solar car and windmill models. The week concluded with the girls presenting to their families all the knowledge they acquired in the week, as well as the posters that they created of themselves in their dream STEM careers.

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