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NSF-Simons NITMB Sparks Innovative Collaboration at ‘Ecological Dynamics’ Workshop

Updated: Jun 10

Karna Gowda, Assistant Professor of Microbiology at The Ohio State University, presents at the NITMB’s Ecological Dynamics of Microbial Communities: new approaches workshop

The Ecological Dynamics of Microbial Communities, new approaches workshop was the first of the NSF-Simons National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology’s topic specific workshops. This workshop solely focused on exploring new approaches to the ecology of microbial communities. This central focus produced extensive in-depth discussions throughout the five-day workshop.

Each workshop day was tied to a sub-theme important to the study of microbial communities. Speakers raised questions related to the theme of the day and discussions grew from those questions, resulting in an entire day of discourse devoted to one main idea. One speaker, Martina Dal Bello, incoming Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, found daily themes especially useful for starting discussions, and commented “the fact that there was a theme each day and a person coordinating the talks, I think this was very useful to get everyone on the same page about the topic. This was a very brilliant idea.”

Asking the right questions

Martina Dal Bello, incoming Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University

Questions raised by speakers were explored throughout the workshop.  Everyone was encouraged to provide input and ask questions during presentations to inspire new ideas and produce an atmosphere of inquiry. The audience was comprised of researchers from a wide variety of academic backgrounds and the questions participants explored were carefully curated to be interesting to everyone in attendance.

According to event organizer Luis A. Nunes Amaral, Erastus O. Haven Professor and Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and (by courtesy) Physics and Astronomy at Northwestern University, “the most exciting opportunities, from my view, are those new questions that will arise from the joint-interests of both mathematicians and biologists.”

Convening experts in numerous disciplines to explore topics was something Linh N. Huynh, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Mathematics at Dartmouth College, found interesting. Huynh remarked that, “the workshop has given me the impression that the NITMB encourages multidisciplinary collaborations and approaching research problems from different perspectives, which helps with creativity and innovation.”

Learning the languages of other disciplines

Claire Evensen, PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley

Ensuring all workshop participants could speak in the complicated languages of diverse disciplines was crucial for a workshop focused on bringing together experts in different fields. “We wanted participants to have the opportunity to learn each other’s language,” said Amaral, “[which was] not a simple task considering the diversity of backgrounds.” Helping participants gain a broader understanding of how to communicate across disciplines was a key goal of workshop presentations.

As Huynh experienced, “the workshop expanded my knowledge of mathematics and biology widely. I am very impressed that the biologists I met at the workshop used a variety of mathematical tools to tackle biological problems, some of which are new and different from what I have seen at some classical mathematical biology conferences.”

After exploring pressing questions in microbiology through speaker sessions and learning how best to communicate across disciplines, workshop participants were prepared to engage in meaningful discussions with other biologists and mathematicians.

Exploring Ecological Dynamics

Kiseok Lee, PhD Candidate at the University of Chicago, speaks during a brainstorming session

In developing the ‘Ecological Dynamics’ workshop, NITMB workshop organizers were convinced that discussion time is crucial for building bridges across the disciplines of mathematics and biology. As workshop organizer Amaral described, “we attempted to create ample opportunities for people to meet and go beyond the topics discussed in the presentations.” Keeping groups small and diverse encouraged attendees to meet new people and engage with different ideas they otherwise may not come across.” As Dal Bello explained, “when you have these huge discussions with 30, 40 people, there are only a few voices that appear. If you go into small settings, you get input from many more people, even from young researchers who are usually fresh minds that can have a different perspective.”

The ‘Ecological Dynamics’ workshop was important not just for encouraging researchers of all career levels to participate in discussions, but also for the significant amount of time workshop participants were given to discuss questions. Dal Bello believed this time given for discussion and contemplation was critical to the success of the workshop. “I enjoyed the discussions a lot. The long time given to ruminate on things, it’s what set this workshop apart compared to other workshops I’ve been participating in.”

Igniting new collaborations

(Left) Milo Johnson, Postdoc at the University of California Berkeley, (Right) María Rebolleda-Gómez, Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine

Providing time for thinking through questions and group discussions drove the development of new collaborations between workshop participants.  

“The fact that we had all this time and these small group discussions really pushed collaboration” Dal Bello noted. “This is the first short workshop I participated in where there was time to sit down with potential collaborators and jot down ideas and questions to work on together.” The unique structure of the ‘Ecological Dynamics’ workshop was key for helping researchers like Dal Bello connect with others who can provide meaningful support.

While the findings of new collaborations that result from this workshop may be significant on their own, what may be even more important is the cycle of discovery that can come out of a new collaboration. As Martina Dal Bello explained, “Two brains are always better than one. The fact that this workshop spurred so many new collaborations is good because new collaborations bring new questions and new discoveries.” Establishing this cycle of inquiry and discussion will push researchers to new questions that will deepen our comprehension of biological systems and expand mathematical theory.


(Left) Maureen Coleman, Associate Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, (Right) Linh N. Huynh, Postdoctoral Research Associate in Mathematics at Dartmouth College

Participants at all stages of their career were able to find satisfaction in the ‘Ecological Dynamics’ workshop, according to Amaral. “My impression, and the feedback that we received, suggest that participants really valued the experience and that individuals at all levels, from graduate students to eminent researchers, had a chance to feel that they could contribute to the discussions.” The ‘Ecological Dynamics’ workshop may have concluded, but this workshop has provided immense value to a diverse range of researchers who will take what they have learned, the connections made, and collaborations developed back to their home institutions across the country. The NITMB and organizers of the ‘Ecological Dynamics’ workshop are proud to already see the early-stage effects of this workshop and look forward to the long-term implications this event will have for the study of microbial communities.



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