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UT Knoxville Wins $16M Mathematics and Biology Center

Mathematicians and biologists from around the world will converge on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to take part in a new institute dedicated to finding creative solutions to pressing problems from animal disease to wildfire control.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded UT Knoxville $16 million to begin the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, or NIMBioS. UT Knoxville won the award in competition with 18 of the nation’s other top research institutions. The center will be directed by Louis Gross, a professor of math and ecology and evolutionary biology.

“NIMBioS is an exceptional addition to our campus,” said Jan Simek, UT Knoxville interim chancellor. “Our success in this competition reflects our growing reputation as one of the nation’s top research universities. All of us are proud of this new opportunity, and we all look forward to the impact this center will have on our campus, our region and ultimately, on our nation and the world.”

Funding for the institute will be used to create a high-tech center on the UT Knoxville campus that will draw more than 600 researchers from around the world each year to take part in working groups, workshops and conferences.

A unique aspect of NIMBioS will be its partnership with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park and its Twin Creeks Science Center will play a key role in the institute’s work, with the park serving as a testing ground for many of the ideas that come from NIMBioS.

Partners in NIMBioS include NSF, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Industry partners include IBM and ESRI.

Mathematical Biology

Mathematical biology is a growing field that applies the power of mathematics and modeling to complex biological problems at scales ranging from the tiniest microorganisms to the movement of species across thousands of acres, over periods of time that can stretch over the entire course of evolution.

Whether developing better strategies to control the spread of invasive species or determining the best way to combat wildfires, the techniques allow researchers to take a broader, more systematic approach to finding the best possible solutions.

“We believe this center is poised to be a global hub for mathematical and biological research,” said Gross. “By taking a unique approach to scientific collaboration across a variety of disciplines, NIMBioS will have an immediate impact.”

According to Jim Collins, NSF assistant director for biological sciences, the center reflects recent shifts in biology.

“At the start of the 21st century, biologists will become increasingly quantitative and interdisciplinary,” said Collins. “This new institute has a broad mandate to pursue excellence at the interface of the life sciences and mathematics. In fulfilling this mission it complements previous and current efforts to stimulate quantitative thinking in biology while fostering interdisciplinary research and education. NIMBioS is an exciting addition to an increasing NSF portfolio at the interface of the life and physical sciences.”

Connecting the Right People

NIMBioS will bring together small groups of researchers from mathematics, biology and other fields to investigate very specific applied issues that face the country, as well as fundamental scientific problems.

“This is about connecting the right people with one another, and then facilitating that connection,” said Graham Hickling, an associate professor of forestry, wildlife and fisheries at the UT Institute of Agriculture. Hickling serves as associate director for partner relations at NIMBioS.

In addition to these small working groups, the institute will host larger gatherings on biological topics and on how to apply the tools of computational science to biology in general. Sergey Gavrilets, a professor of math and ecology and evolutionary biology at UT Knoxville, will oversee research at NIMBioS as associate director for scientific activities.

Said Brad Fenwick, UT Knoxville vice chancellor for research and engagement, “NIMBioS will have an immediate impact, bringing top researchers to this globally-significant institute located in the heart of our campus. More than that, however, NIMBioS will multiply the impact of our campus on the world, putting UT Knoxville at the hub of the vital and growing field of computational biology. Winning this competition represents the culmination of a long process for our institution, and I congratulate Lou and his team on this great success.”

As NIMBioS associate directors, Suzanne Lenhart, professor of mathematics, will be guiding outreach, diversity and undergraduate education activities and Cynthia Peterson, professor and head of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, will be guiding graduate education activities.

This grant follows on the heels of the NSF creation of the National Institute for Computational Sciences at UT Knoxville, a $65 million award to build and operate a supercomputer to assist scientists nationwide. UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory experts in high-performance computing will work with NIMBioS scientists to apply the power of supercomputing to the difficult problems NIMBioS will answer.

NIMBioS Director and Assistant Directors

Louis Gross

Louis Gross is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics. He will serve as the director of NIMBioS. His research focuses on computational and mathematical ecology, with applications to plant physiological ecology, conservation biology, natural resource management, and landscape ecology. As director of the Institute for Environmental Modeling, he leads researchers working on an array of environmental problems from the biotic impacts of Everglades restoration planning, to invasive species control, infectious disease management, and risk assessment of environmental contaminants.

Sergey Gavrilets

Sergey Gavrilets is a distinguished professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics. He will serve as NIMBioS associate director for scientific activities. A leading researcher in theoretical and computational evolutionary biology, he has led and been part of extensive international collaborations. He uses mathematical models to study complex evolutionary processes, with current emphasis on the following areas: social and cultural evolution, speciation and adaptive radiation, sexual conflict, holey fitness landscapes and microevolutionary processes and macroevolutionary patterns.

Graham Hickling

Graham Hickling is a research associate professor in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries in the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, and director of the institute’s Center for Wildlife Health. He will serve as NIMBioS associate director for partner relations. Hickling is currently developing simulation models of the spatial dynamics of ticks, pathogens, and reservoir host species (mice, raccoons, birds and deer) and their potential for human health risk. Models incorporating wildlife hosts are fundamental to understanding recent distributional changes in ticks and tick-borne pathogens because wildlife dispersal provides the primary means by which ticks invade new habitat.

Suzanne Lenhart

Suzanne Lenhart is a professor of mathematics and a part-time member of the research staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She will serve as NIMBioS associate director for outreach, education and diversity. 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. She also has extensive experience through her work as a former president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, as well as volunteer activities and involvement with local high school students and with Mu Alpha Theta.

Cynthia Peterson

Cynthia Peterson is professor and head of biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology and director of the graduate program in genome science and technology. She will serve as NIMBioS associate director for graduate education. Peterson’s research focuses on the interactions among circulatory proteins and their role in regulating homeostasis, the inflammatory response, infectious disease, and the biological clock. These efforts integrate protein biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular, cell, and structural biology. She also has extensive knowledge regarding the application of computational methods to issues of structural biology. She will direct SCALE-IT, an NSF-funded IGERT program housed at UT Knoxville.

Additional information is also available in NatureNews.