December 13, 2006

National Science Foundation funds case program for integrated mathematical and biological sciences undergraduate research

Four Case Western Reserve University biology, mathematics and statistic majors will be pioneers in a new program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The Research at the Interface of the Biological and Mathematical Sciences (RIBMS) program selected Arielle Kanters, a second-year biology major and math minor; Drew Kouri, a third-year math major; Eric Webb, a second-year mathematics major; and Peter Whalen, a second-year biology and mathematics double major, as its initial participants.

The project is a new mentoring program that pairs math and statistics students with their counterparts from biology to engage in undergraduate research projects that involved a mathematical-biological sciences team of faculty mentors.

RIBMS responds to the growing awareness that the biological sciences and mathematical research fields need more skilled students in the research career pipeline .Over the next three years, Case will receive $240,000 from the NSF to prime more students for working at the interface of math and the biological sciences. Next year, eight students will be chosen for RIBMS.

The program's principal investigator and co-director is Robin Snyder, assistant professor of biology. Snyder will team up with researchers from the Center for Global Health and Diseases on an ecology project to understand how interactions among different strains of malaria and filaria affect disease dynamics in humans in a project that looks at conditions in Papua, New Guinea.

"The modern age of scientific inquiry began with the marriage between mathematics and the ancient sciences of physics and astronomy," said Peter Thomas, assistant professor of mathematics and a co-investigator with Snyder on the NSF grant. Biologists are finding that more cutting-edge techniques are depending upon collaborations of mathematicians and statisticians and laboratory and field biologists, Thomas said. "Computational techniques and modeling are booming in many science fields," he added.

Joining Snyder and Thomas on the project are Joseph Koonce, professor and chair of the biology department; James Alexander, professor and chair of mathematics; and Ramani Pilla, assistant professor of statistics.

The RIBMS program supports the biology department's new systems biology major that has been developed through funds from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The systems biology major provides a melding of disciplines, while RIBMS immerses students in research that has the potential to lead to publication in science journals, presentations at science meetings and acceptance into leading graduate school programs.

Snyder and Thomas would have welcomed such a program when they were undergraduates and graduate students. Each came to their fields from either the science or math side of research where they sought out faculty mentors from such places as theoretical neurosciences at the University of Chicago for Thomas. As a postdoctoral fellow, Thomas worked with Terrence Sejnowksi, a Case alumus who is a pioneer in computational neurosciences at the Salk Institute. Snyder, with a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, became a biologist through work with the theoretical ecologist Roger Nisbet.

"Getting into this particular area of science now basically requires a student to do double majors," said Snyder. She added that RIBMS hopes to break down these barriers. The researchers have created "the RIBMS Club House" on the fifth floor of Millis to help generate the synergy among students in this new project.

Students selected for the RIBMS program will enroll in a one-credit seminar, "Preparation for Research in Mathematical Biology". Upon completing that course, students will spend the summer engaged in their research projects. They will receive a stipend, as well as laptop computers with software to support their work. They also will participate in a Biomathematics Forum where research projects are discussed. RIBMS students who are in their fourth year will complete their projects as their senior capstone experience.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, December 13, 2006 03:45 PM | News Topics: College of Arts and Sciences, Grants, HeadlinesMain, Provost Initiatives, Research, Students

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