Big West Affiliates Collaborate for New NSF Life Science Data Science Award

Multiple universities throughout the western U.S. have recently teamed for a four-year National Science Foundation (NSF) project focused on detailed simulations for an array of life science research efforts. Led by the University of Wyoming, the project has been designed to build and test computational models representing an array of biological processes. Additional participants hail from the University of Montana and the University of Nevada-Reno.

“This project and our Data Science Center represent the type of collaborations we intend to foster with the West Big Data Innovation Hub and other institutions across the region and beyond,” said UW President Ed Seidel. “As former leader of the Midwest Big Data Hub, I deeply understand well how big data approaches can do so much to benefit our society, our economy and the environment, and the opportunities in this area are almost limitless. UW is committed to growing strengths and partnerships in these areas.”

Principal Investigator Alex Buerkle explained that the new grant has provided him and his team with an opportunity to further examine large data sets related to the innumerable bacteria, fungi, and other microbes in the soil, water, and air that shape life in the Cowboy State. 

University of Wyoming graduate students estimate vegetation cover and take soil samples to be used for microbial diversity analysis near Brooklyn Lake in the Medicine Bow National Forest. Credit: Linda van Diepen, University of Wyoming.

“Some types of models can fit observed data very well, but lack generality and ability to extrapolate to novel settings or future time points,” said Buerkle, a UW botany professor. “Conversely, other types of models can be more general but provide a poorer fit to individual data sets. In our research, we will develop knowledge of these trade-offs and methods that combine advantageous features of different types of models.”

In addition to Buerkle, Wyoming participants and co-principal investigators are Sarah Collins, an assistant professor of zoology and physiology; Daniel Laughlin, an associate professor of botany; and Lauren Shoemaker and Christopher Weiss-Lehman, both assistant professors of botany.

Additional researchers involved with the grant include Joanna Blaszczak, an assistant professor of natural resources and environmental science, and Matt Forister, a professor of biology, both at the University of Nevada-Reno; and Robert Hall, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.

The $6 million grant will also fund 12 postdoctoral researchers as well as hardware and software to support the consortium via the UW Data Science Center, which has been in operation since 2017.

“We are eager to support this consortium of scientists in the western states as they use large-scale data sets to study complex environments and amplify its important contributions,” said Christine Kirkpatrick, West Hub co-executive director. “Computation often receives the focus in research computing design, but slowly data has become an equal partner. What makes the University of Wyoming’s approach especially exciting are its proposed contributions to research data management for integrative models and simulations.”

About the West Big Data Innovation Hub: The West Big Data Innovation Hub is one of four regional hubs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build and strengthen strategic partnerships across industry, academia, nonprofits, and government. The West Hub community aims to catalyze and scale data science for societal needs – connecting research, education, and practice in thematic areas such as natural resources and hazards, metro data science, health, and data-enabled discovery and learning. Coordinated by UC Berkeley’s Division of Computing, Data Science, and Society, the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and the University of Washington, the West Hub region includes contributors and data enthusiasts from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, and a global network of partners.