Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
The Marriage of Biology and Math
Universities across the nation, like the UA, are working to improve connections between biology and mathematics, two disciplines that seemingly have little in common.
It may seem like the manipulation of mathematical symbols and the observation of living things have little in common.
But researchers advancing stronger connections between mathematics and the life sciences say a merger of the disciplines can result in improved research, especially to help answer important questions in fields such as environmental science and medical science.
The University of Arizona is among the institutions where such a merger is under way.
"It isn't easy to bring the two disciplines together for a variety of reasons, but some institutions in the country have been successful in doing this," said Carol Bender, director of the UA Undergraduate Biology Research Program, or UBRP.
To provide a forum for researchers and practitioners to share successful ways of integrating biology and mathematics, Bender and her colleagues are hosting Making BioMath Happen Conference.
As part of the UA's activities funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, or HHMI, the June 13-15 conference is one in a series developed by the University of Delaware, Emory University and the UA to promote the integration of mathematics into the education of life sciences students.
"We hope that attendees will come away from the conference with fresh ideas about how to actually make biomath happen on their campuses," Bender said, adding that Delaware hosted last year and Emory will host in 2013.
UA Distinguished Professor William Y. Vélez, associate head of undergraduate programs in the mathematics department, will serve as the keynote speaker. The plenary speaker is HHMI scientist Claudia Neuhauser, also vice chancellor for academic affairs and Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota, Rochester.
The conference, which features other speakers from institutions across the U.S. and Australia, includes workshops, several sessions of talks and a research symposium.
Joe Watkins, chair of the UA HHMI BioMath Committee who leads the group that organized the conference, said about 150 UA students are jointly studying in mathematics and life sciences.
"That's up from nearly zero six years ago. It's a new phenomena, and it's student-driven," said Watkins, also a UA mathematics professor.
These are people who, in their younger years, may have enjoyed toying with mathematical equations but also were fascinated with the lives of ants and bees or wanted to take courses in both anatomy and geometry.
"They really are interdisciplinary thinkers," Watkins said. What it means for both field is that there must be curricular shifts to better educate this crop of emergent scholars, he added.
The presence of such students at the UA coincided with the pivotal report, "BIO2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists."
The National Research Council released the report in 2003, urging U.S. institutions to better integrate mathematics, physical and information sciences into courses in the biological sciences.
Since 2006, the UA has twice received HHMI funding to offer additional targeted support – first for life sciences students studying in mathematics, and secondly under a grant through 2014 to reach a broader population of UA students.
"The fusion of ideas is happening," Watkins said. "There is curriculum everywhere. The question now is how do you integrate that curriculum."
Another output is the "BioMath Circle," a discussion series that connects UA mathematicians and biologists, offering a space to discuss ways to integrate more quantitative studies into the life sciences.
During the UA conference, BioMath Circle member Esther Widiasih will talk about the group, which was organized by the UA's BioMath Committee and the Institute for Mathematics and Education.
During the academic year, the group meets twice each semester, sharing ideas around ways to assist students in a variety of the life sciences.
The group also has held meetings around curricular design and recommendations for courses in introductory biology and genetics, and also the UA School of Neuroscience.
"These luncheons open up the conversations about how we should equip the next generation of life scientists with the necessary quantitative skills," said Widiasih, an HHMI BioMath postdoctoral fellow for the mathematics department.
Widiasih, who is helping develop a virtual laboratory for students on topics in biochemistry, said what is currently happening also signals "a fresh attitude and the willingness of educators in both fields to work together."