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A New Lens

Nina FeffermanNina Fefferman, a professor in the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Mathematics, began her tenure as director of the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) March 1, 2021.

Initially established in 2008 with an award from the National Science Foundation, NIMBioS brings researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to find creative solutions to today’s complex biological problems.

Under Fefferman, the future of NIMBioS will honor much of the tradition built during the last 12 years it has been a Center at UT, but look at research through a new lens.

“In order to continue to serve the research community, we are going to refocus on what we do here at UT,” Fefferman said. “The most immediate new thing we are going to do is support new research initiatives at the interface of mathematical biology, especially for people who are not mathematical biologists.”

Fefferman encourages any biologist who is “math curious” and any quantitative scientist in search of a new system to explore to come to NIMBioS to discover opportunities to support ideas and curiosity.

“We want to reduce the barriers for researchers at UT who have a great idea, but maybe not the time to write a grant proposal,” Fefferman said. “Or, perhaps they love a research idea, but it does not seem to have a high enough probability of success relative to the meat and potatoes of what they do. These are some of the types of researchers we want to provide infrastructure for connecting to other researchers at UT and beyond.”

Fefferman invites researchers at UT to start a conversation with her about what they need. What gets in their way when they have a great research idea? What can NIMBioS provide?

“We will not have the brilliant insights for every problem, but what we do have is incredible expertise at articulating the problem, so that is what we are going to focus on,” Fefferman said. “NIMBioS is going to try and be the enzymatic process to enable that extra thing no one has time for right now.”

Another new initiative is a contract consulting endeavor to provide graduate students with research experience and support research expenses for new faculty.

“We want to look at how we can do some consulting work and build models that just need to be built,” Fefferman said. “It’s not cutting edge research, but it could generate more early publications for students and provide a little bit of start-up money for first-year assistant professors.”

Fefferman’s own research is varied, but it all comes down to the common core of trying to understand systems and how individuals make choices within those systems. The community of researchers in departments ranging from math and biology to biochemistry, microbiology, agriculture, and engineering energizes Fefferman.

“UT has an almost unique number of mathematical biologists because of NIMBioS, so being at UT has been wonderful,” Fefferman said. “Having the community around me as such a vibrant set of researchers really helps me stay creative and engaged.”

Fefferman looks forward to engaging with the community of researchers at UT in her new role, but also tightening the community to support each other and new ideas.

“We have all this incredible talent working in parallel,” Fefferman said. “I am excited to tap into the full potential of research possibilities at UT.”