The NIMBioS Nexus: Creating Interdisciplinary Connections to Solve Biological Problems

By Catherine Crawley

Higher education in the U.S. today emphasizes initiatives that traverse disciplinary boundaries and forge new interdisciplinary connections. The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus has taken up this call with its mission to foster new collaborative efforts to investigate biological questions using mathematical and computational methods.

More than 600 scientists representing more than 100 different institutions worldwide have participated in research and educational opportunities thus far at the institute, which opened its doors in March 2009. Participants have included ecologists, epidemiologists, economists, mathematicians, and computer scientists, among others.

NIMBioSMore commonly known as NIMBioS (pronounced NIM-bus), the institute arises from a new collaborative effort between the National Science Foundation and two other agency sponsors, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Primary goals are to address key biological questions using interdisciplinary approaches in mathematical biology and to foster the development of a cadre of researchers who are capable of conceiving and engaging in creative and collaborative connections across disciplines.

Examples of biological problems that can be addressed mathematically range from managing invasive species and foreign animal diseases to predicting and controlling emerging infectious diseases such as the H1N1 flu.

“Today’s disciplinary divisions can sometimes constrain progress in addressing pressing national and international problems. Programs that reach out to connect departmental ‘silos’ have shown success here at UTK and elsewhere at fostering major new initiatives, such as NIMBioS,” explains Louis Gross, NIMBioS director and UT professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics.

To reach its goals, NIMBioS has four major thrusts: (1) Working Groups of 10-15 invited participants focused on specific questions meeting 2-3 times over a two-year period, (2) Investigative Workshops of 30-40 participants focused on more open-ended general problems, (3) skill and methods-based programs, called Tutorials, that foster a broader understanding of applications of modern math and computational science in biology, and (4) education-linked-to-research opportunities for the elementary through post-doctoral level.  NIMBioS also offers support for short-term visitors, post-doctoral fellowships and sabbaticals.

Unlike other NSF-supported mathematics institutes, NIMBioS activities are not based upon an annual theme. Rather, research directions and activities are derived from requests for support from the research community and collaborative efforts with industry and government agency partners. Requests are vetted by the NIMBioS leadership team, which consists of a director, deputy director, and four associate-level directors, all of whom are UT professors, as well as a 23-member international Board of Advisors and NIMBioS’ Committee to Promote Diversity.

Two feral pigs are seen in Florida in this NASA photo. The NIMBioS Feral Swine/Pseudo-Rabies Working Group has a goal to manage outbreaks of the disease among wild animals in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as other natural areas.  Photo Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons
Two feral pigs are seen in Florida in this NASA photo. The NIMBioS Feral Swine/Pseudo-Rabies Working Group has a goal to manage outbreaks of the disease among wild animals in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as other natural areas.
Photo Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

A current collaborative activity is the NIMBioS Working Group on Managing Feral Swine and Pseudo-Rabies in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An invasive species in the park, feral swine are destructive to the park’s natural resources. The rooting of the hogs damages vegetation and small mammal communities and also damages cultural resources, such as old homes and cemeteries where the hogs like to root. The population was so great in 2009 that more than 600 hogs had to be removed. The burgeoning population and the diseases that can afflict the hogs, such as pseudo-rabies, are both problems that need further investigation. With a goal to manage outbreaks of disease among wild animals in the Smokies as well as other natural areas, the Working Group was initiated through a collaborative effort of mathematical and biological researchers at several academic institutions and wildlife managers at the park.

“What the Working Group is doing with modeling the problem is pretty interesting and useful in terms of showing the impact of hog control as well as showing what would happen if we did nothing to the population,” said Bill Stiver, a wildlife biologist in the park and participant in the Working Group.

NIMBioS accepts requests twice a year, in September and in March, for new Working Groups and new Investigative Workshops, as well as applicants for postdoctoral fellowships and sabbatical fellows. Applications for short-term visitors are considered four times per year.

For more information about research and educational opportunities at NIMBioS, visit the web site at http://www.nimbios.org

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