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'Decode' Project Garners $2 Million Grant from National Science Foundation

JONESBORO – A team of faculty researchers at Arkansas State University has secured a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to train interdisciplinary teams of scientists to analyze novel interactions within multiple levels of biological organization.

The project, "Understanding Invasion and Disease Ecology and Evolution through Computational Data Education” is described by the researchers with the abbreviation UandI-DEECoDE (You and I Decode).

Dr. Travis Marsico, professor of botany in Department of Biological Sciences, is the principal investigator for the project.

“The project focus, at the interface of disease ecology, invasive species biology, and advanced computation, is timely and incredibly important to help solve some of society’s pressing problems,” Marsico explained.

He is joined by a team of co-principal investigators: Dr. Jake Qualls, assistant professor of computer science, Dr. Emily Bellis, assistant professor of bioinformatics, Dr. Asela Wijeratne, assistant professor of bioinformatics, and Dr. Kyle Gustafson, assistant professor of parasitology. Greg Umhoefer is project coordinator.

“I am thrilled about the transformative potential of our research traineeship for the science doctoral programs at A-State,” Marsico continued. “The interdisciplinary nature of our program will allow us to make important discoveries, advance science, and train a diverse scientific workforce.”

Grant activities will include interdisciplinary and project-based coursework, professional development institutes, data science bootcamps, mentorship networks, research pods, and opportunities to conduct science abroad.

This work fits well into A-State’s growing research mission.

“As an emerging Carnegie R2 national research university, it is very important that we support and grow our doctoral programs, and this grant does exactly that,” noted Dr. Tom Risch, vice provost for research & technology transfer. In addition to the research training for Ph.D. students that will result, our faculty will be engaged in cutting edge research that is both basic and applied in nature.

“This interdisciplinary research has taken shape as a result of a close collaboration between the biology faculty who focus on disease ecology and invasive species and our faculty in our Center for No-Boundary Thinking, which will result in entirely new approaches to address big questions,” Risch added.

Direct local impacts will include long-lasting institutional improvements to graduate student life by sustaining more Ph.D. lines and building a solid and inclusive graduate student culture, according to the grant proposal narrative.

Scientific literacy, appreciation, and engagement deficits in Northeast Arkansas will be addressed by infusing UandI-DEECoDE into the local community through targeted outreach activities, Marsico added. Beyond the region, UandI-DEECoDE will address the critical roles of global awareness, information systems, and predictive modeling to tackle growing issues regarding invasive species and diseases.

With an added goal of boosting participation among historically underrepresented groups in STEM, UandI-DEECoDE will help prepare scientists for the knowledge-based workforce in the Arkansas Delta, one of the most disadvantaged regions in the United States.

The focus of UandI-DEECoDE, at the intersection of disease ecology, invasion biology, and data science, makes this program the first of its kind to explicitly address the need to combine expertise from these fields to enhance the understanding of ecology and evolution among newly interacting species.

The NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) Program is designed to encourage development and implementation of potentially transformative models for STEM graduate education training. The program is dedicated to effective training of STEM graduate students in high priority interdisciplinary or convergent research areas through comprehensive traineeship models that are innovative, evidence-based, and aligned with changing workforce and research needs.

This award reflects NSF's mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Professor of botany in the Department of Biological Sciences Dr. Travis Marsico is the principal investigator for the project. Joining us is Dr. Marsico, as well as assistant professor of bioinformatics Dr. Emily Bellis, and Ph.D. student in Molecular Biosciences Alix Matthews. Click on the Listen button for the entire interview.

Johnathan Reaves is the News Director for KASU Public Radio. As part of an Air Force Family, he moved to Arkansas from Minot, North Dakota in 1986. He was first bitten by the radio bug after he graduated from Gosnell High School in 1992. While working on his undergraduate degree, he worked at KOSE, a small 1,000 watt AM commercial station in Osceola, Arkansas. Upon graduation from Arkansas State University in 1996 with a degree in Radio-Television Broadcast News, he decided that he wanted to stay in radio news. He moved to Stuttgart, Arkansas and worked for East Arkansas Broadcasters as news director and was there for 16 years.