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Physics Professor Michelle Girvan Receives $3M NSF Grant to Train Graduate Students in Network Biology

As researchers in the life sciences cope with the data explosion resulting from the advent of powerful new technologies, they must learn to transform this raw data into useful information from which new biological insights can be inferred.

To address this challenge, the University of Maryland recently received a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) grant to establish a new training and research program in network biology. Graduate students in the Computation and Mathematics for Biological Networks (COMBINE) program will learn to marry physics-style quantitative modeling with data processing, analysis and visualization methods from computer science to gain deeper insights into the principles governing living systems.

"More data does not mean better information without the interdisciplinary tools required to make the transformation," said COMBINE's principal investigator Michelle Girvan, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. In her own research, Girvan combines methods from statistical physics, nonlinear dynamics and computer science to develop network science tools that can address problems in computational biology and sociophysics.

The COMBINE program anticipates training approximately 60 Ph.D. students, including 35 who will be supported by 12-month fellowships. Participants will receive training in four areas of network analysis: quantitative metrics for biological networks; mechanistic models of biological networks; network statistics and machine learning for biological applications; and visualization techniques for large, complex biological data sets. This training will provide the foundation for research in at least one of the following areas: biomolecular, neuronal and/or ecological/behavioral networks.

Research experiences, interdisciplinary coursework, peer-to- peer tutorials and internships with partners—including the Smithsonian Institution, the National Institutes of Health, the University of Maryland School of Medicine and industry partners—will provide the graduate students with the skills needed to communicate complex scientific ideas to diverse audiences to maximize impact. Outreach activities will extend the benefits of the program to undergraduates, middle and high school students, and to the public at large. COMBINE brings together a unique, multidisciplinary team of researchers. Co-principal investigators of the program are Associate Professor Daniel Butts and Professor Bill Fagan of the Department of Biology, and Associate Professor Hector Corrada Bravo and Professor Amitabh Varshney of the Department of Computer Science and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. Varshney also serves as interim vice president for research and chief research officer at UMD. The highly competitive NRT program fosters development and implementation of bold, new, potentially transformative models for graduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Fewer than 10 percent of proposals submitted to the program are funded.

"Innovative and interdisciplinary approaches will be key to tackling tomorrow's scientific challenges, and today's STEM graduate students will need to develop the skills to meet those challenges," said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF assistant director for education and human resources. The NSF Research Traineeship program is testing new models to train graduate students across STEM disciplines and to prepare them for contributions in diverse careers."

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405- 5845, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Writer: Barbara Brawn-Cinani

University of Maryland

College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

2300 Symons Hall,

College Park, MD 20742


About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.

Inaugural Plasma Award Announced

The inaugural Ronald C. Davison Award for Plasma Physics (2016) was presented to Gregory Howes of the University of Iowa for research done in conjunction with UMD's Professor William Dorland of Physics and IREAP and Jason TenBarge, an Assistant Research Scientist in IREAP. The Davidson award recognizes the research described by the most notable paper published in AIP's Physics of Plasmas over the last five years. It will be presented annually at the APS Division of Plasma Physics meeting, and carries a cash prize of $5,000 for the first author.

This new prize honors Ron Davidson, a member of the University of Maryland Department of Physics from 1968-78. Prof. Davidson moved from Maryland to MIT and then to Princeton University, where he served as Professor, as Director of the national laboratory for plasma physics research from 1991-96, and as editor of the journal Physics of Plasmas. Davidson himself authored more than 500 papers, many of which were seminal, covering a wide range of plasma physics phenomena. He won the James Clerk Maxwell Prize in Plasma Physics in 2008, and is one of five current and former University of Maryland faculty to be so honored.

Howes, TenBarge and Dorland's paper, entitled "A weakened cascade model for turbulence in astrophysical plasmas", Phys. Plasmas, 18. 102305 (2011), presented the first high-resolution, kinetic simulations of turbulence in the solar wind together with a theoretical framework for interpreting and generalizing the predicted fluctuation spectra to a wide range of physical conditions. This research project represents an "export" of theoretical and computational tools from the international magnetic confinement fusion research program to non-laboratory, natural settings. For magnetic confinement fusion research to pay off, it is essential to control plasma turbulence (among other problems), and the University of Maryland has long been a leading institution in the theory and simulation of plasma turbulence. The collaboration between UMD and the University of Iowa grew out of a national, five-year Department of Energy Fusion Science Center (2006-2011), led by Dorland and Prof. Steven Cowley (FRS), now at the University of Oxford. A central goal of the Fusion Science Center was to identify and nurture broader applications of fusion-inspired theory.

The Chirps Heard Round the World

Two black holes, locked together in close orbit for eons, abruptly ended their dance in spectacular fashion about 1.3 billion years ago. In two-tenths of a second, the pair of objects—about 29 and 36 times the mass of our sun—drew closer together, accelerated and merged to form a single black hole. The cataclysm instantly obliterated three suns' worth of mass and transformed it into gravitational energy, which radiated outward in waves traveling at the speed of light, warping the fabric of space and time along the way.  Read more

Photos from the Gravitational Waves event on November 1, 2016.



During the first weekend of October, the University of Maryland Department of Physics and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) held the inaugural Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU2MiP), bringing students from several universities to this campus for networking, career advice and discussion of research opportunities. In 2014, UMD Department's Director of Education, Donna Hammer and NIST's Katharine Blodgett Gebbie and Angela Hight-Walker organized a very successful Mid-Atlantic Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physics, which inspired their vision to establish CU2MiP.

CU2 student image

Attracting students to science, technology and mathematics (STEM) has emerged as one of the nation's leading educational priorities. Historically, physics has had one of the lowest levels of women and racial and ethnic minorities among all STEM fields. Research by the American Institute of Physics has shown that women and minorities are consistently underrepresented among those receiving physics bachelor's degrees, compared to their portions of college enrollments. And only about four percent of PhDs awarded in this country go to underrepresented minority students, i.e., African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

On Friday, Oct. 7, the CU2MiP opened at NIST with a welcoming address by Nobel Laureate and UMD Distinguished University Professor Bill Phillips. Phillips gave an inspiring and engaging talk on having fun while pursuing a career in physics, but also spoke with sadness of Gebbie, the retired Director of NIST's Physical Measurement Lab who had greatly looked forward to meeting the students of CU2MiP. Dr. Gebbie died August 17 at the age of 84.

After a full afternoon of NIST lab tours, the conference attendees enjoyed dinner and talks by UMD Distinguished University Professor Jordan Goodman, NIST Director Dr. Willie E. May and UMBC Professor of Physics Anthony Johnson. Saturday's activities included a welcome by alumna Delilah Gates, '15, now a graduate student at Harvard,and a talk by mathematician and UMBC President Freeman A. Hrabowski III, which received a standing ovation. Interactions with representatives from the AIP, APS and OSA, NASA, NSBP, NSHP, and workshops on graduate school, research opportunities and career paths ensued. A poster session preceded dinner, and Regents Professor Jim Gates gave the evening address. The UMD chapter of the Society of Physics Students then sponsored a physics trivia night.

Sunday's agenda included a talk by Dr. Tabbetha Dobbins of Rowan University, a community building session and an address by department Chair Steve Rolston. Several UMD physicists participated in "Exploring Careers in Physics," which highlighted the many ways that the analytical skills, knowledge and technical expertise that accompany physics degrees can be put to use in academia, government and industry. UMD undergraduates Paula Rodriquez and Myles Poole offered closing remarks.

Participant enthusiasm seemed very high, according to Hammer. "We were extremely happy with the energy the students brought, and with the rapport that developed over the weekend," she said. "Our speakers and panelists were all so encouraging and helpful to this next generation of scientists." Hammer stated, "The extremely positive responses we received fromCU2MiP have already have us excitedly working on planning for next year."

A survey of the CU2MiP students returned highly-favorable reviews and comments:

What struck me most were the speakers. They were truly inspiring and motivating.

It was more insightful than I had expected. The guest speakers all shared information that was unknown to me and offered motivation to continue in my physics studies.

I am leaving with new friends, great connections and an overall newfound love and appreciation for physics and the sciences.

Please accept my condolences on the passing of Dr. Gebbie. She is still having a positive influence on science through persons like you who carry on her philosophies through these kids of activities.

I enjoyed meeting so many people who have experienced being a minority STEM student and were willing to share their unique insight into navigating the academic world and beyond.

Honestly I have never had more fun doing anything in my entire life.

More information on CU2MiP can be found here: