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‘Rigorous Discussion’ of Critical Questions in Mathematics and Biology at the 2024 NITMB Annual Meeting

Updated: Apr 25

NSF-Simons National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology members and guests gathered for the Institute’s annual meeting at the Simons Foundation Flatiron Institute.


2024 NITMB Annual Meeting participants gather for discussion at the Simons Foundation Flatiron Institute 


“If anyone says biologists don’t need mathematicians or mathematicians don’t need biology, I think in the modern day those are very outdated ideas” remarked Yogesh Goyal, Assistant Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology and McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. Goyal, along with numerous other experts in the areas of computer science, physics, mathematics, and biology convened at the Simons Foundation Flatiron Institute for the NSF-Simons National Institute for Theory and Mathematics in Biology (NITMB) 2024 Annual Meeting. All the experts invited to the meeting were interested in interdisciplinary research aligning with the NITMB’s visionary goal to transform the practice of biological research and to inspire new mathematical discoveries. 

 

One aspect of this meeting that stood out to attendees was the mix of both theorists and experimentalists in attendance. Yogesh Goyal believed “it was a very special meeting in that it was truly half experimentalists and half theorists in the same room.” Brent Doiron, Heinrich Kluver Professor of Neurobiology and Statistics at the University of Chicago, expanded on the significance of maintaining a diversity of expertise among meeting participants. “It’s important that we have equitable representation across biology and mathematics.” Maintaining a diversity of academic expertise across biology and mathematics was necessary for forwarding the NITMB’s goals of integrating the two disciplines.  


A Convergence of Mathematicians and Biologists


Essential to the mission of the NITMB is bringing together field experts from across the disciplines of mathematics and biology to discuss current problems and develop new math and biological discoveries. While efforts to reach this end could be conducted remotely, the NITMB believes bringing people together physically for dedicated events has far greater potential for producing innovation. As Brent Doiron explained, in-person gatherings like the 2024 NITMB Annual Meeting are the most effective method to achieve this goal. “When you’re trying to merge mathematics culture and biology culture, those things don’t happen over email.” Belief in the power of in-person gatherings is supported by science history, according to Yogesh Goyal. “A lot of Nobel Prize winning discoveries in biology happened because of interactions between biologists and mathematicians. We need to have these intentional events where people come together, rather than passively hoping for such interactions.” 

 

In-person convening activities are beneficial not just because of the presentations, lightning talks, poster sessions and brainstorming sessions. Small interactions between biologists and mathematicians can lead to breakthroughs and new collaborations. “It’s not just the talks,” explained Brent Doiron, “it’s also the coffee breaks. It’s the dinners. It’s all that allows us to network.” 

 

The 2024 Annual Meeting was a unique event for the NITMB as it occurred at the Simons Foundation Flatiron Institute in New York City, rather than in Chicago, where the NITMB is located. In addition to allowing NITMB members to meet with members of the Simons Foundation, Brent Doiron believes hosting the meeting at the Simons Foundation’s New York City offices had another benefit. “If you’re trying to have an in-depth meeting, and you’re doing it in the city you all live in, people’s lives get in the way, and people won’t go for dinner, or they’ll skip sessions … The act of just going to the Simons Foundation was definitely valuable. There was nothing else to do except talk about science with one another.” Taking time to converse over scientific and mathematical problems helped mathematicians and biologists develop new ideas and form connections that will further integrate mathematics and biology in the future of research. 


2024 NITMB Annual Meeting participants converse over lunch 


Combining Mathematics and Biology 


Now more than ever, it is imperative mathematicians and biologists build cross-discipline bridges so each study can support the other. The continued advancement of both mathematics and biology relies on an interconnected loop, wherein mathematics and biology are both solving problems and asking new questions in both disciplines. “Some of the things which were not possible before in biology are now possible because of interventions from physics, engineering, and computer science, which also leads to new questions in mathematics,” said Yogesh Goyal. “I think most of the time these questions go hand-in-hand in mathematics and biology.”  

 

Sharing the new possibilities available for mathematicians and biologists to collaborate was an essential mission of the Annual Meeting. Brent Doiron believes the meeting was not only beneficial for helping others understand his work, but it also gave him a greater understanding of the work being conducted in other fields. “The NITMB meeting really opened my eyes to a lot of contemporary problems that are at the interface of math and biology in disciplines that are not areas I’m focused in. So that really did allow me to be broadly more conversant.” 

 

The 2024 NITMB Annual Meeting was another instance of the Institute bringing together mathematicians and biologists to discover new ways their work can overlap. To spark conversation and uncover new questions, a selection of participants presented their recent work. 


Sparking Discussion on Unanswered Questions


The presentations given at the 2024 NITMB Annual Meeting were unusual compared to traditional academic conferences. Rather than focusing on completed projects, presentations at this event showcased the unanswered questions experts were pondering. “I got a lot more high-level understanding about the questions that drive people and the open problems in the field,” said Brent Doiron, “which is exactly what you want a meeting like this to be.”  

 

In order to help give attendees a high-level understanding of complex issues, presenters took notice of the diversity of experience present in the audience. Whereas conferences dedicated to only one niche topic may contain an overabundance of technical language, presenters at the 2024 NITMB Annual Meeting ensured their thoughts were accessible. This accessibility made it easier for experts from other fields to contribute to discussion and bring forth new perspectives. “The speakers did a very good job at making it accessible,” claimed Yogesh Goyal, “which meant that you could follow up during the daytime or lunchtime. And you could see in-between sessions, there was a lot of chatter and some of us went to dinner together afterwards. It just facilitated things which would not have been possible otherwise.”  

 

While time in-between spaces were relaxed and conversation, the atmosphere during the presentation sessions was one of rigorous inquiry that encouraged participants to ask many questions. According to Yogesh Goyal, “every talk there were, like, 50 questions, which means people were all engaged, an obvious sign of success for a program.” Further proof of the success of both the Annual Meeting and the NITMB is found within new collaborative research being developed because of this meeting. 


Shaping the Future of Collaborative Research


Bringing together field experts from numerous disciplines results in new ideas and collaborations that will shape the future of mathematics and biology research. Yogesh Goyal remarked “we are starting to see new collaborations because of this meeting.” These collaborations are evidence of the impact the NITMB has had on converging the fields of mathematics and biology to develop new math and biological discoveries. Brent Doiron also found the Annual Meeting valuable for developing new collaborations. “It allows people that don’t know my work to see what I do, start collaborations, and vice versa.” The impact of the Annual Meeting is already being experienced. Brent Doiron explained that because of his presentation at the Annual Meeting, “several people got excited about the work and wanted to follow up. I’ve already had a couple meetings.” 


The Next Generation of Mathematicians and Biologists


Beyond established researchers, the Annual Meeting served to inspire current students, revealing the possibilities available for research at the convergence of academic disciplines. Madeline Melzer is a PhD student and a member of Yogesh Goyal’s lab. She is interested in the dynamics of single-cell events and how they can be quantified and controlled. Melzer appreciated the Annual Meeting’s facilitation of networking and opportunities to engage in discussions on important questions. “I found it incredibly valuable to hear researchers at various career stages present their work and to engage directly with them and their students.” 

 

The Annual Meeting was essential for enlightening students on questions critical to the research themes of the NITMB. Understanding these questions helped students like Madeline Melzer gain a greater understanding of how they can contribute to disciplines outside their own. “Because I am new to the field, I did not know the diversity of biological questions that mathematics was being applied to,” said Melzer. “This exposure has significantly broadened my appreciation of what my own research could encompass in the future by incorporating mathematics and theory into my work.” 

 

Madeline Melzer’s experiences at the Annual Meeting will impact her career trajectory. Attending the Annual Meeting exposed Melzer to the numerous applications mathematics can have in the study of biological questions. “I am very new to the idea that mathematics is a necessary tool to study many biological questions. I hope to approach my future work using these kinds of thinking, and this meeting has made me more excited to do so.” The work of the NITMB has left such an impact on Melzer that she is excited to increase her engagement with the NITMB. “The meeting assured me that the NITMB is a place I want to contribute to and learn from in the future. I am looking forward to continuing the discussions I had with other NITMB trainees at future NITMB events and in passing at the NITMB offices.”  


The 2024 NITMB Annual Meeting and What Comes Next


The 2024 NITMB may have concluded, but the effects of this meeting on researchers, students, and their work in mathematics and biology will continue. The meeting inspired researchers to examine what is possible with the convergence of mathematics and biology, and the future of the NITMB. 

 

“[The NITMB] is strong. It’ll be exciting to see how some of these ideas that I was exposed to at the NITMB meeting change and morph over time.” said Brent Doiron. Yogesh Goyal also found the Annual Meeting to be an important reminder of the value the NITMB brings. “You can see people who work in so many different areas. Evolution, ecology, adaptation, neuroscience. I don’t think I remember a community which really brought all of them together.”  

 

After the 2024 Annual Meeting, the future of the NITMB is brighter than ever before. “I’m pretty excited,” said Yogesh Goyal. “This is a big reason I love being in Chicago and being a part of this burgeoning Institute and at Northwestern. I really feel like this is a community I belong to, and I hope to be an active part of it.” The NITMB will continue its mission to integrate mathematics and biology and bring together diverse field experts with upcoming events such as its Ecological Dynamics of Microbial Communities: new approaches workshop. Future workshops, meetings, and other events hosted by the NITMB will continue to shape the future of mathematics, biology, and the convergence of these fields. 

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