Notes from the Director, Fall 2021

William Ratcliff, Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Quantitative Biosciences

William Ratcliff, Co-Director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Quantitative Biosciences

Updates on our new students, a new training grant, current student awards, and other highlights.

This is my first Fall term in my role as Interim Director of QBioS (Founding Director Prof. Joshua Weitz is on sabbatical until Fall 2022), and for the most part, there is lots of good news to go around. Academically, students in QBioS are thriving. We just welcomed our 6th cohort, and I am deeply impressed by their curiosity, engagement, insight, and work ethic. QBioS students are continuing to use quantitative methods to push the boundaries of biological knowledge, are graduating and moving on to exciting jobs in industry and academia, and we have recently received a new NIH training grant (link: Before talking about our programmatic developments, however, I want to address this fall’s elephant in the room: COVID-19.

For a while this summer, it looked like life on campus this fall would be relatively normal. Exceptionally effective vaccines were deployed in the spring, and by mid-summer, COVID-19 cases in Georgia had fallen to relatively low levels. But as it has so many times in the past, evolution fundamentally changed this landscape. The ‘Delta’ variant brought together a number of mutations that had previously been seen in other successful SARS-CoV-2 lineages, resulting in a considerably more transmissible virus in a population that remained vulnerable to infection.

In the last few months we have seen a significant increase of COVID-19 transmission both in our community and across the country. The best thing that we can do to prevent further injury and mortality from COVID-19, both immediately and in the future is to limit the number of people that get infected, which in turn helps reduce the risk associated with the potential evolution of variants of concern. The key pillars to reach this goal are straightforward: vaccination, wearing masks when interacting with others indoors, using testing as a form of mitigation, and social distancing when possible. Please continue to your part to protect yourself and the community by embracing each of these steps.

OK, back to the fun stuff. This summer, Profs. Peng Qiu and Joshua Weitz were awarded a NIH T32 training grant entitled Integrative and Quantitative Biosciences Accelerated Training Environment (InQuBATE). This five-year, $1.27 million grant will focus on developing quantitative and data science methods as cornerstones of biological research and training, supporting graduate students from the College of Sciences, Engineering, and Computing. QBioS is a key partner in this training grant and we expect extensive interaction between InQuBATE supported students and the broader QBioS community.

QBioS PhD students continue to excel in research and outreach. Marian Dominguez-Mirazo and Rogelio Rodriguez-Gonzalez (advised by Prof. Joshua Weitz) both received CONACYT fellowships from the Mexican National Council of Science and Technology. Baxi Zhong, advised by Prof. Dan Goldman, was a Best Paper Finalist at the Robotics Science and Systems Conference for his paper “Moving sidewinding forward: optimizing contact patterns for limbless robots via geometric mechanics.” Pedro Márquez-Zacarías, (part of the inaugural cohort, and advised by me), received a Science ATL fellowship for his Spanish-English bilingual scientific communication.

One of QBioS’s greatest strengths has always been our community. With ~40 students, we’re a relatively small PhD program, and our student body has historically been highly interconnected. The pandemic strained this core social component, limiting interactions outside of core collaborations and friendships. As we return to in-person learning and research, the QBioS Student Government Association (Conan Zhao, Aaron Pfenning, Pablo Bravo and Tucker Lancaster) has taken a proactive approach to rebuilding a broader sense of community and comradery. Over the past six weeks, they have organized regular social events (i.e., dollar taco night, hiking at Sweetwater State Park, and a QBioS BBQ) and remote watch parties for QBioS student qualifying exams and PhD defenses, and have developed a mentoring program that pairs up new QBioS and InQuBATE students with senior QBioS student mentors. I am delighted to see such vibrant student leadership- read more about the motivation behind their work here.

Finally, we are beginning to ramp up our Fall recruitment campaign. Applications for Fall 2022 are due by December 1st. If you are a member of the QBioS community, you can help us by spreading the word (email me if you need flyers or a PowerPoint slide to append to talks). If you are interested in joining QBioS, feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions (!

Take care everyone,
Will Ratcliff