January 22, 2019

Math and the microbiome may appear to have little in common, however a closer look reveals they are more connected than one might think. According to Matt Sullivan, Professor and Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) Thematic Program Director, “Microbiome science needs better math to understand complex interactions and large-scale datasets, while new (and old) math is needed to solve new kinds of problems being brought about by studying microbes in an ecosystem context.”

A recent workshop looked to utilize math and statistics to answer questions surrounding the microbiome. The workshop, led by Adriana Dawes, Associate Director of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute (MBI), Vanessa Hale, Assistant Professor and IDI Thematic Program Director, and Matt Sullivan, sought to explore this interface. To do so, they took on a unique approach where participants spent their workshop time in casual and formal working groups, with the goal of progressing from prescribed working groups to emergent partnerships. The focus for these collaborators was creating a project proposal that could excite mathematicians, statisticians, and theorists as well as microbiome scientists.

 Hale states the “main goal was to identify questions, challenges, tools, and needs in the mathematical microbiome community and also stimulate interdisciplinary collaborations.” Math and microbial research communities offer plenty of overlap, according to Sullivan, “The challenge of microbial communities is we have big data where we may or may not apply the best math. We need to find better ways to work with modelers, mathematicians, and statisticians and to do so in a manner that excites them about the science.” The three day workshop, held this past fall, kicked off with three broad, symposium-style talks to invite scientists in diverse disciplines to start thinking about the connections between math and the microbiome. Next, the 40 participants were split into working groups, including at least one mathematician, statistician, post-doc, student and biologist, to identify and explore big questions in the field. “These groups were meant to spur discussions and push people out of their comfort zones,” said Sullivan.

After these initial discussions in assigned groups, participants were asked to form their own groups – with a mathematician, statistician and biologist – and create a pitch for a fundable project within 24 hours. Projects were informally pitched on the second day of the workshop, allowing for group discussion and refinement of ideas, with finalized pitches being judged on the final day. “We gave them very little guidance but also very little restrictions,” Hale explained, “Groups were fluid for a while but eventually settled on four groups with four very unique projects and approaches.”

Ultimately two groups were awarded the Math and Microbiome Innovation Award, a seed grant of five thousand dollars, funded by MBI and IDI, to start working on their projects. The first project seeks to use innovative replicated experimental approaches to look at inter-kingdom interactions and how microbial communities assemble into their final forms. The second project proposes generating a sample archive for studying how infant microbiomes develop in daycare environments. This project will establish infrastructure to evaluate social, developmental, environmental and clinical variables along with microbiome sampling in infants. “Beyond this award,” says Hale, “IDI has resources to support finding further funding, which is a very powerful way to move these ideas forward.” Hale and Sullivan commented that IDI support was integral to getting the workshop off the ground. Hale states “At first, we were hitting a brick wall with finding funding for the seed grants but we strongly believed that financially incentivizing the project competition would push participants to develop meaningful projects and productive collaborations that would be sustained after the workshop was over. This is where IDI came in with targeted funding that ultimately supported the seed grants.” IDI not only supported the Innovation Awards, but Michael Oglesbee, IDI Director, attended the workshop and helped judge the final projects based on novelty, design, vision and interdisciplinary connections between math and microbiome sciences.  

The project competition asked people to move outside of their comfort zones and think in a new framework.  In the time since the workshop ended, both project groups have actively carried out their proposed projects, continuing to meet, strategize, and add additional collaborators to their teams. “This was the true goal of the workshop” says Hale, who also encourages everyone to “watch these projects and watch the [microbiome] space at OSU and the IDI.”

Hale and Sullivan would like to thank the workshop sponsors, The Mathematical Biosciences Institute, the National Institute of Statistical Sciences and the Infectious Diseases Institute at The Ohio State University. Additional support was provided by The Ohio State University Foods for Health Discovery Theme and ThermoFisher Scientific.

Written by Program Assistant Emily Richardson

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