Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures to begin Jan. 18 at University Park

December 19, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Ashtekar Frontiers of Science Lectures in the Eberly College of Science, the free public lecture series on six consecutive Saturday mornings at Penn State, returns in January 2020. This year’s series, with a theme of “Predicting the future: Improving lives and communities through modeling,” explores how scientists, policymakers and communities increasingly use data science to plan for the future in our ever-changing world.

From disease forecasting to identifying potentially habitable worlds outside our solar system, the 2020 Frontiers of Science lecture series will provide examples of how life scientists and physical scientists alike use statistical and mechanistic modeling to improve lives and society.

Murali Haran

Murali Haran is professor and head of the Penn State Department of Statistics. 

IMAGE: Nate Follmer, Penn State

The lecture series includes six free public lectures on Saturday mornings from Jan. 18 through Feb. 22 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The lectures will be held in 101 Thomas Building on the Penn State University Park Campus with the exception of the Feb. 1 lecture, which will be held in the Berg Auditorium, 100 Huck Life Sciences Building. More information about the lecture series can be found at

The series begins on Jan. 18 with a lecture by Murali Haran, professor and head of the Penn State Department of Statistics, titled, “Statistics and the future of the Antarctic ice sheet.” Haran will discuss the role that statistics plays in climate science and how scientists make projections about future climate using statistics. He will discuss his research focused on the future of the Antarctic ice sheet, which has an important role to play in the future of the planet.

In addition to Haran’s lecture on Jan. 18, the lecture series continues through Feb. 22 with the following lecture topics:

Jan. 25, 2020, “Predicting the future of plant diversity: New applications for digitized herbarium data”

Pamela S. Soltis, distinguished professor and curator, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida     

Botanists have been collecting and depositing plant specimens in herbaria for centuries, with approximately 350 million specimens currently housed in the world’s herbaria. Until recently, these records of plant life on Earth were only available to those with the resources to visit herbaria in person. Recent efforts to digitize natural history collections have produced digital data and images for millions of specimens — available on the internet and in computable form for addressing today’s many societal challenges related to biodiversity. Application of modeling software to herbarium specimen information and environmental data enables characterization of the ecological niche of a species and the geographic distribution of this niche. Using projected changes in environmental variables, we can predict where the niche of a species will be under alternative future climate scenarios. Soltis’ talk will present a summary of how herbarium data are used to characterize the ecological niches of the flora of Florida and predict changes in Florida’s plant diversity during the coming century. The use of predictive modeling is an important new component of species conservation.

Feb. 1, 2020, “Understanding wildlife connectivity and disease spread through GPS tracking”

Featured location: Berg Auditorium, 100 Huck Life Sciences Building

Ephraim M. Hanks, associate professor of statistics, Penn State 

Movement is a fundamental process driving population connectivity as well as the spread of infectious disease and invasive species. Recent advances in technology have made it possible to track animals at extremely high resolution. Hanks will show tracking data from a wide range of systems, including insects, birds and mammals, and illustrate approaches for analyzing tracking data using modern statistical and machine learning tools. These analyses will focus on examining how individual animal movements can be explained and predicted using remotely sensed data and how individual movements scale up and define population-level structure, connectivity and fitness.

Feb. 8, 2020, “The road to characterizing potentially habitable planets”

Eric B. Ford, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, Institute for Computational and Data Sciences, Penn State    

The Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State discovers and characterizes planets beyond our solar system to understand the implications for the possibility of life beyond Earth. NASA’s Kepler mission discovered thousands of exoplanets, including hundreds of Earth-size planets. However, the planets discovered around sun-like stars by Kepler are typically thousands of light years away, making them difficult to study in detail. Penn State researchers have developed sophisticated modeling tools to deduce the distribution of planets and planetary systems in our galaxy and have developed a new generation of instruments to test these models by searching nearby stars for Earth-mass planets. Learn how Penn State research is informing plans for a new generation of observatories and space missions to characterize potentially Earth-like planets.

Feb. 15, 2020, “Infectious disease outbreak control: Harnessing the power of multiple models to work smarter, not harder”

Katriona Shea, Alumni Professor in the Biological Sciences and professor of ecology, Penn State       

Disease outbreaks are a source of immense human, wildlife and agricultural concern. They threaten our health, our environment and our food security. When new outbreaks such as Ebola occur, scientists rush to help. Even so, often relatively little may be known about a disease, even as policymakers must make critical decisions about how best to manage it. Quantitative models that describe biological processes in terms of mathematics or statistics can be incredibly helpful in such cases. They allow us to summarize what we do know while highlighting where our important knowledge gaps lie. Shea will overview the use of mathematical modeling approaches in disease settings, drawing examples from human, wildlife, livestock and agricultural scenarios. She also will discuss important general insights that have arisen from modeling efforts, including cautionary tales, the importance of context and ways to streamline decision-making when time is of the essence.

Feb. 22, 2020, “Predicting mutation and disease occurrence from DNA and omics data”

Kateryna Makova, Francis R. and Helen M. Pentz Professor of Biology, Penn State    

With affordable DNA sequencing, information on mutations in an individual’s genome is readily available. Mutations can cause numerous human genetic diseases but are only one contributor to the probability of disease development for an individual. Makova will discuss how mutation frequency depends on gender, age and DNA location, and will explore how statistical models can explain and predict mutation occurrence and applications to pregnancy planning and genetic counseling. In addition to genetic information, we now can generate microbiomics, metabolomics, epigenomics and viromics data, which may help us understand the patterns of disease occurrence. As an example, the analysis of various omics data sets related to childhood obesity will be covered.

The lecture series was founded by Abhay Ashtekar, founding director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos and a member of the National Academy of Science. It owes its success to Barbara Kennedy, who presided over the series during its first 25 years, making it one of the most successful science outreach events in central Pennsylvania.

You can view a recording of these lectures after they are archived online at

Parking near the lectures is available in the Eisenhower Parking Deck on Eisenhower Road and in the HUB Parking Deck on Shortlidge Road.

Penn State encourages qualified persons with disabilities to participate in its programs and activities. If you anticipate needing any type of accommodation or have questions about physical access provided, you may call 814-867-5830 or email in advance of your visit.

Last Updated January 12, 2020