National Science Foundation awards Smith $1 million biomathematics grant
Published: Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 14:09
The National Science Foundation recently awarded Smith and three other liberal arts colleges a one million dollar grant for five years in order to fund the growing field of biomathematics through a newly established inter-university consortium.
Professors Robert Dorit, Christophe Gole, Denise Lello and Ileana Streinu composed an interdisciplinary group which aimed to earn, and eventually succeeded in securing, the grant on Smith's behalf.
"One of us, Rob Dorit, had participated in an NSF panel for this program and saw the possibilities for Smith," said Gole, a math professor, in an e-mail. "He talked to many in the science community at Smith. We had all integrated to some extent the two disciplines in our previous research. But it took us about four years, three attempts to get the grant. Our perseverance, and our bringing in the three other colleges in the grant this year probably made the difference."
"Although Smith and the Five College faculty have a tradition of working together, unencumbered by department barriers, the new emphasis, through the biomathematical sciences concentration, is primarily for the benefit of students," wrote Streinu in an e-mail. "It is a way to signal to them, hey, math is not just for nerds, nor are computers just for geeks. You, as a well-rounded, well-educated person, can learn how to use these tools in other areas of science."
Regarding the research-related implications of the new grant, Gole emphasized the diversity of the opportunities available to both faculty and students.
"A large group of faculty at Smith and in the other three colleges has proposed projects of many different kinds, at different biological scales," he said. "At the molecular scale, understanding how proteins fold and unfold in space may help the development of new drugs. At the cellular scale, we may be able to model how neurons grow, and how they connect. Yet at a bigger scale, we might be able to predict how the environment affects spread of epidemics or invading species."
Gole furthermore highlighted the benefits the grant will offer to select students involved in the program.
"The grant will provide stipends to up to 20 students at Smith, and 30 others in the three colleges," he said. "When the program is at a cruising mode, it will support the selected students for two academic years and one summer each. Students will be matched in groups including both mathematical and life sciences, understood broadly. They will be monitored by pairs of faculty, also from the life and mathematical sciences."
A common concern shared by the faculty involved in the securing of the grant was a lack of sufficient interdisciplinary thought in mathematical and scientific studies, which they argued would ultimately disallow the solving of crucial global problems.
"There is a massive vein of information that needs to be mined at the intersection of mathematics and life sciences and the miners need to be trained early on," said Dorit in an interview with the Grécourt Gate.
"There is a universal, pressing need to educate the 21st century scientists in an interdisciplinary way," said Streinu. "We just cannot afford to be separated by the ‘language' barrier. ‘You speak math, I speak biology and we do not understand each other' means that important problems that can be solved, will not be solved."
"In most colleges and universities, the life sciences and the mathematical sciences live in mostly separated universes," said Gole. "It is quite an effort for scientists to break out of their respective bubbles. The goal for this grant is to train students at a relatively early stage to be comfortable in bridging the cultural gaps between the life and mathematical sciences, and to develop a safe place for faculty to collaborate across disciplines."
Finally, both Streinu and Gole noted the importance of such cooperation across concentrations in bettering students as desired academics.
"A recent American Association for the Advancement of Science report [from 2010] identified a list of core competencies for all biology undergraduate students, placing in second and third the ability to use quantitative reasoning and the ability to use modeling and simulation," said Gole.
"There is a lot of information out there, carefully gathered by natural scientists using the latest technological advances," said Streinu. "Hidden underneath may be the answer to some deep secret of life, or the cure to a threatening disease. The students who will be trained to speak the language of science, and also think mathematically, the students who will have research experiences to take with them when they go into the ‘real world,' will have a definitive head start in any scientific career."