IMA Workshops Help Students Boost Their Knowledge of Mathematical Biology

four female graduate students sitting on ledge outside

Tricia Phillips (far left), Cara Sulyok, Hannah Thompson, Lindsey Fox

When the IMA hosted back-to-back workshops this spring on mathematical biology, it presented a unique opportunity for four women graduate students from the math department at University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Under the encouragement and guidance of Dr. Suzanne Lenhart (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), Hannah Thompson, Lindsey Fox, Tricia Phillips, and Cara Sulyok, all of whom are part of the same program studying mathematical biology/ecology, decided to take advantage of attending these two distinct workshops.

The Workshop for Women in Mathematical Biology, held the last week of May, brought together women graduate students, postdocs, and faculty to share current and emerging research while offering panel discussions on developing skills for interdisciplinary communication and career development in general. The workshop on Ecological and Biological Systems, held the first week of June, was part of the thematic program on Modeling, Stochastic Control, Optimization, and Related Applications and featured scientists of both genders from theoretical research and data analysis, discussing mathematical models and tools for ecological and biological applications.

Though they are in different stages of their graduate careers, Thompson, Fox, Phillips, and Sulyok all looked forward to meeting other women in the same field, networking, gaining career advice, learning about current research directions, and getting new ideas that could be applied to their own research. Phillips said she was especially interested in getting ideas for how stochasticity could be incorporated in different models.

A the conclusion of their stay at the IMA, the students felt that the variety of talks across the two workshops was valuable, allowing them to learn about previously unfamiliar topics and concepts. They also all agreed that the panel discussion from the Women in Mathematical Biology workshop was a highlight.

“It did not focus on the more standard discussions on the topic of women in math, but focused on working at the interface of math and biology,” Thompson said. “It was very useful to hear from several women on the subject and to get their various perspectives and experiences.”

Thompson, an early career graduate student attending her first workshop, also felt that attending both allowed her to become more comfortable and to get more out of the later talks, just through the experience. For example, from the second workshop on Ecological and Biological Systems, Thompson found the talk given by Dr. Thomas Kurtz (University of Wisconsin, Madison) on population models as partial observations of genealogical models to be outstanding.

“I took my first graduate course in probability this year, but the excellent introduction of his talk allowed me to understand the big ideas of his talk,” she said. “His talk and many others were great opportunities to see the applications of probability to biology that I didn't see in my course.”

Phillips, a third-year student, felt that meeting other graduate students and professors was the most beneficial part for her, as doing so creates a sense of community. Sulyok and Fox both appreciated the informal discussions with advanced colleagues.

“Talking with some of the more experienced people at the workshops gave me an insight into what my career could be like,” Fox said. “I got wonderful career, teaching, work/life balance, and job search advice.”

“They gave me an idea of where my career could go and advice on how to get there,” Sulyok added.

Overall, the students said that the new connections and meeting of potential collaborators during these two workshops will be a big help for their careers and interests in the future.