Piloting an Undergraduate Research Biomathematics Program

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Title of Abstract: Piloting an Undergraduate Research Biomathematics Program

Name of Author: John Berges
Author Company or Institution: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Author Title: Associate professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: Bioinformatics, Ecology and Environmental Biology
Course Levels: Sophmore/Junior
Approaches: Interdisciplinary Research Experiences
Keywords: biomathematics undergraduate research experiences mathematical modeling bioinformatics curricular integration

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Erica Young, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Istvan Lauko, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Nigel Rothfels, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Gabriella Pinter, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Recognizing that the 2011 Vision and Change Report gave mathematics requirements special attention in the “New Biology” (including systems biology and modeling), and that “interdisciplinarity” was identified as a key goal, faculty in Biological Sciences, Mathematical Sciences and Freshwater Sciences have collaborated to develop an NSF-supported research program at the interface of Undergraduate Biology and Mathematics (UBM). The program promotes cross-disciplinary education in biology and mathematics with a focus on undergraduate research, and strengthens the culture and academic foundation of interdisciplinary biology-mathematics education.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: 1. Supporting cohorts of undergraduate students with active mentoring and collaborative learning through authentic research projects as part of a two-year research immersion in key biology-mathematics research areas. 2. Developing new curricular components to encourage interdisciplinary training through both a certificate program in Quantitative Biology, and a research-oriented Biomathematics specialization within the mathematics major.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: UBM students and mentors are participating in the CURE survey, administered online and processed by Prof. Lopatto (Grinnell College).

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The program has exceeded expectations. At the undergraduate level more students recognize the need for sophisticated quantitative preparation for applied sciences careers, and more students get involved in undergraduate research. At this point our program has come to include a much broader group of “affiliated” students (some partially supported and some who receive no financial support), and contributes to larger campus initiatives to expand undergraduate research opportunities. Motivated and supported by their experience in the UBM program, more than 90% of the participating students have continued or plan to continue their studies in professional (medical and veterinary) or graduate schools. At the graduate level, Biology students have benefited from having mathematics faculty involved in their research and dissertation/thesis work. There has also been an increase in Mathematics graduate students working on interdisciplinary projects arising from increased interactions between Biology, Public Health, Freshwater Sciences and Mathematics faculty. At the faculty research level, the program interactions have fostered collaborative research proposals submitted internally and to external agencies, and several of the proposals have attracted new interdisciplinary research funding.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: While our program is succeeding at many levels, we face persistent challenges, including: bridging different teaching expectations (e.g. course loads) for faculty in different units that participate in the program; providing appropriate teaching credit and release time for program development; finding ways to compensate mentors for additional research costs involved in offering projects; and finding appropriate ways to pay student stipends. The Vison and Change 2011 report recommended advocating for increased status, recognition and reward for innovation in teaching, but so far there is little evidence of progress in this area. We have started implementation of an interdisciplinary certificate program in Quantitative Biology, and a research-oriented biomathematics specialization within the Mathematics major. There are, of course, considerable administrative barriers to new courses, and to have a new specialization approved in a timely fashion. The paperwork necessary and the lack of clerical support make these efforts difficult and time consuming. Negotiating early in the development of the program with senior administrators (e.g. the Provost) has proven to be a key element in success. Beyond this, the program would be difficult to scale up in its current configuration. The results have been very encouraging, but the resource requirements per student are very high. As a program built on faculty being willing to take on substantial additional responsibilities (including advising, travel with students, new course development, administration of stipends, etc.) with little or no compensation, the program succeeds because of the individual commitments of faculty whose personal and professional circumstances can and will change over time. Like other highly successful “boutique” programs, the UBM is vulnerable to personnel changes and administrative neglect, and we need to work out what sorts of changes and administrative support will be necessary to move the program

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Project results have been presented at several national Undergraduate Research conferences. In is intended that all undergraduate research projects will result in publications in the primary scientific literature.

Acknowledgements: Support from UWM in the form of a UROP-DIN award funding two new faculty positions in Biomathematics. National Science Foundation Award 1129056.