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University of Idaho Receives Grant of Nearly $11M for Biomedical Research Modeling

MOSCOW, Idaho — Aug. 13, 2020 — The University of Idaho has secured a grant of nearly $11 million from the National Institutes of Health to support continued modeling for biomedical research at U of I’s Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation (IMCI).

The funding comes as Phase 2 of a Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant received by the U of I in 2015. COBRE grants support the establishment and development of biomedical research through awards granted in three sequential phases.

During Phase 1, grant funds of $10.6 million helped U of I students, staff and faculty researchers from nearly every college incorporate modeling in their projects. Funds financed projects such as studying disease severity and transmission rates in hosts infected with multiple pathogens at the same time and the role of social influence and human perceptions of infection risk when making vaccine choices. Phase 1 money also supported major equipment purchases that help facilitate the production of quantitative data, sponsored 11 postdoctoral fellowships and assisted faculty acquire nearly $20 million for additional research in the state of Idaho.

IMCI is supporting several research projects related to COVID-19.

“We are proud of our Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation researchers who make important contributions to the state of Idaho and our nation,” University of Idaho President Scott Green said. “This team was instrumental to guiding statewide decisions in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This biomedical research grant that is focused on cancer and the human microbiome will enable this talented team to further advance those efforts, helping our leaders and medical community save lives and improve living conditions in our country.”

The Phase 2 COBRE funds will continue to bolster U of I interdisciplinary biomedical research with new research projects studying cancer genomics, cancer imaging and interpreting variation in the human microbiome. New projects will be added over the course of this five-year grant.

“This funding allows us to continue what we’ve started and is particularly important to the campus community as we elevate our research profile,” said Holly Wichman, distinguished professor, IMCI director and principal investigator on the grant. “IMCI is a team-based idea generator that encourages participation across disciplines and among people who might otherwise never connect. Such collaboration fosters big ideas, and big ideas solve big problems.”

Brainstorming is a focus of IMCI. The COBRE grant finances research projects for early career faculty and pilot grants to explore possible new research directions. Funding also supports IMCI’s Modeling Core, a unique service center of postdoctoral researchers that offers diverse skills in various modeling approaches to principal investigators and working groups. It also supports learning opportunities for the campus community through a seminar series, workshops and hands-on data management and analysis training.

“We think all researchers should use modeling,” Wichman said. “Modeling improves research at all stages – hypothesis formulation, experimental design, analysis and interpretation – and provides a unifying language by which exchange of ideas can highlight commonalities and uncover unforeseen connections between problems.”

Modeling is especially useful when it is not feasible to experimentally explore all solutions to a problem. IMCI modeling approaches include everything from using mathematical formulas to replicate and predict real-world behavior to simulating molecule interactions to building physical and computational models of 3D objects. This funding will allow IMCI to bring new modeling expertise to the U of I research community.

This project was funded to University of Idaho by National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences under award 2P20GM104420-06.The total project funding is $10,999,565.00 of which 100.00% is the federal share.

IMCI Postdoc Lihong Zhao Leaving

Congratulations and well wishes to Lihong Zhao who is leaving her postdoctoral fellowship today to join the University of California. She will join the Applied Mathematics Department in Merced as RTG-DIRAC postdoc, specifically as a part of the Mathematical Biology SMaRT team.

Why R0 Is Problematic for Predicting COVID-19 Spread

Dr. Benjamin Ridenhour, Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistical Science and IMCI modeler, recently made significant contributions to an article in The Scientist, a magazine for life science professionals:

In the meantime, epidemiologists are reckoning with the uncertainty around SARS-CoV-2’s biological parameters by assuming a range of values rather than fixed numbers, says University of Idaho epidemiologist Benjamin Ridenhour, who is helping state officials predict the spread of the virus. He’s placing confidence intervals around every biological parameter in his model. His R0 could be anywhere from around 1.3 to 4, he says. “That way, obviously the chances that anything you model is exactly correct are zero, but hopefully you can capture it in that range somewhere.”

Read the entire article, written by Katarina Zimmer, here.

Dynamic Virtual Protein Project Wins International Award

Last week a University of Idaho team presented at the 25th VRST Symposium in Sydney, Australia, and won the Best Demo Award for their project “Dynamic Virtual Proteins: Visualization, Interaction and Collaboration in Virtual Reality.” In the world of virtual reality, the Symposium on Virtual Reality Software and Technology (VRST) is among the top ten virtual reality conferences in the world.

The Dynamic Virtual Proteins project team consists of Jean-Marc Gauthier, Virtual Technology and Design Associate Professor, Jagdish Suresh Patel, Department of Biological Sciences Research Assistant Professor, and Ian McGrath, 2019 graduate of the College of Art and Architecture. The interdisciplinary research is part of a $6 million EPSCoR Track-2 grant from NSF and supported by the Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation (IMCI).

In addition to presenting at VRST 2019, the U of I team was one of six projects selected by Real Time Live, a world-wide, peer-reviewed event of SIGGRAPH Asia 2019. SIGGRRAPH is an annual conference and exhibition that attracts the most respected technical and creative people from all over the world to present cutting-edge projects on computer graphics and interactive techniques. The U of I team demonstrated their most recent project, the Virtual Protein Builder, in real time in front of an audience of more than 1200 people in Brisbane. The presentation showed the visualization of and interaction with two proteins in virtual reality. One of them, beta-lactamase, which provides resistance to antibiotics, was built in real-time in front of the live audience using virtual agents.

“The demo was very well received,” said Gauthier. “We made strong connections for future collaborations with research labs in New Zealand, Germany and Hong Kong. This was a wonderful opportunity to promote some of the research being done at the U of I.”

College of Science Faculty Publish Ground-Breaking Study on Darwinian Genetic Evolution

College of Science faculty Jessica Lee, Siavash Riazi, Shahla Nemati, Jannell Bazurto, Andreas Vasdekis, Benjamin Ridenhour, Christopher Remien and Christopher Marx had a paper published in PLOS Genetics. In their research, they uncovered that genetically identical cells can be phenomenally different in their ability to survive stress, and thus selection acts upon the distributions of phenotypes without leading to genetic changes. They also found that stress tolerance changes with the environment, and there is even a form of memory that takes place as a result. These phenomena are being discovered in many realms, including cancer, where there are often “phenotypic mutations” which may seem like genetic change, but are not. This study opens the door to studying the entanglement of Darwinian genetic evolution with Lamarckian phenotypic evolution. Read the full article.