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On the Borderland of Mathematical Biology

January 7, 2009
NIMBioS researchers will use sophisticated mathematical modeling software to develop solutions to biological and environmental challenges.

NIMBioS researchers will use sophisticated mathematical modeling software to develop solutions to biological and environmental challenges.

By Jay Mayfield

Stealthily stalking throughout the night, raccoons are on the move. In recent decades, these bandit-faced nomads have increased their range and numbers, especially in urban areas where they compete with the trash man for household garbage. The primary havoc they wreak, however, comes not from overturned trash cans, but from the rabies they carry—and spread.

In the campaign to vaccinate the animals and stop the spread of the deadly disease, it’s not as important to know where raccoons have been as it is to know where they will be. And that calls for a solution that is on the borderland of mathematical biology.

While mathematical biology is not a new science, it’s still virtually unexplored territory; and UT Knoxville is now home to the world’s premier center for mapping the geography of this multidisciplinary field.

One of a Kind Leadership

The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, or NIMBioS, is funded by a $16-million grant awarded to the campus from the National Science Foundation in September. It’s the only one of its kind in the world, and the center’s director, Louis Gross, says it will build on UT Knoxville’s leadership in the field.

NIMBioS director Louis Gross.

NIMBioS director Louis Gross.

“We have a long history here of building interdisciplinary teams that effectively address new and challenging problems that cannot be addressed from just a single disciplinary perspective,” says Gross, professor of mathematics and ecology and evolutionary biology.

To understand the need for mathematical biology, it helps to look back a few decades. Scientists typically worked in departmental “silos,” not giving much—if any—thought to collaborating with researchers outside their immediate fields. On one campus, you might find a chemist, a biologist, and a mathematician all working on a similar question; and although the three could have benefited from one another’s expertise in solving problems, collaboration was simply not a priority.

Over time, UT Knoxville has become a leader in the effort to change that mentality.

Taking Down the Silos

“This is the way we’ve made our mark,” says Cynthia Peterson, professor and head of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, and a NIMBioS associate director. “It’s by saying, ‘Yes, we need to take down those silos and not stay in our departmental regimes being only mathematicians or only biochemists.’ Instead try to do something jointly. The payoff has been tremendous.”

NIMBioS associate director Cynthia Peterson.

NIMBioS associate director Cynthia Peterson.

That brings us back to the raccoons. Wildlife officials vaccinate raccoons using special fish bait—think of your favorite sushi, only with rabies vaccine instead of seaweed. Since the animals populate such a broad swath of the country, it’s nearly impossible to rely on first-hand observations to know where to leave the bait so raccoons will find it.

That’s where Gross and colleague Suzanne Lenhart, professor of mathematics and a NIMBioS associate director, come in. Using the power of mathematics combined with biological research in the field, they have developed a model that helps predict where the raccoons will move and where they’re likely to spread rabies.

Local wildlife officials can then use that information to drop bait packets in places where raccoons are most likely to enjoy a tasty treat—hopefully inhibiting the spread of the dangerous disease through the animals the raccoons encounter.

Questions and Answers

An advisory committee of scientists both within and outside UT Knoxville will look for questions like this—ones that call for the kind of interdisciplinary knowledge that the institute can offer. These questions may range from examining the spread of cancer within a body to the way invasive species work their way into an ecosystem.

The team at NIMBioS will then assemble a working group of top researchers from around the world, with expertise in the fields necessary to find solutions to the question at hand. According to Sergey Gavrilets, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and mathematics and a NIMBioS associate director, the groups will come to the institute with a well-defined goal in mind.

“By definition, they will be interdisciplinary,” says Gavrilets, “and we will lay out specific deliverables that they will set out to accomplish.”

More than 600 researchers will visit UT Knoxville and NIMBioS each year, either as members of working groups or as participants at conferences and workshops focused on larger topics in mathematical biology. To manage the center and facilitate the efforts of the working groups, UT Knoxville will hire six new faculty members in the coming months.

“This is about connecting the right people,” says Graham Hickling, associate professor of forestry, wildlife and fisheries and a NIMBioS associate director. “On a daily basis, these people may not think about, say, [the problem of] feral hogs. But if you put them together in a room for a week, they may find some amazing solutions.”

Partners in the Park

NIMBioS will also work with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to serve as a testing ground for solutions developed by NIMBioS researchers. That’s a role familiar to the park. As the most visited national park in the United States, it serves as a model for the National Park Service on a variety of management issues.

The partnership with the park is also an example of how UT Knoxville’s existing research dovetails with the work of NIMBioS. Shih-Lung Shaw, professor and head of the geography department, has worked with Gross on software designed to help park managers respond effectively to wildfires by analyzing the best locations for building firebreaks.

Developed by graduate student Ling Yin, the software uses geographic information system technology to predict how fire will spread, based on weather, terrain, and the amount of fuel available for the fire to burn. It then lets managers insert firebreaks to judge how they might impede the fire’s spread.

“Visualization—the ability to see the data in a recognizable way—is important,” says Shaw, because it helps managers and decision makers to better understand the data.

That usefulness is at the heart of NIMBioS. Whether researchers are working on an applied problem, like keeping fire from spreading, or on basic research that affects the way mathematical models are created, the work is expanding exponentially.

“I envision mathematical approaches in biology to become more and more important to every area of biology, and there’s even potential for industrial development there,” says Gross. “Knoxville would be an obvious site for that to happen.”

“NIMBioS is huge for UT Knoxville,” says Peterson. And whether it’s helping stop the spread of rabies or fighting cancer cells and deadly fires, NIMBioS’s impact will be felt around the world.

For more information, visit the NIMBioS web site at http://www.nimbios.org/