Biology by the Numbers: Research Initiative Pairs Students and Faculty from Biology and Mathematics


By Andrew Molchany ('09), JMU Public Affairs

Studying reflexes and the way body parts react to stimuli such as heat and cold is nothing new for biology students, but explaining the research using mathematics is breaking new ground.

Beginning in spring 2007, eight biology majors teamed up with eight mathematics and statistics majors to learn how the two disciplines can work together.

For biology major Joe Schutte, the input from mathematics majors was enlightening. "They can help us tremendously with mathematical models and biological processes. Working together, we can achieve a lot more than working separately. It's really valuable to see another viewpoint."

Schutte teamed with Deena Hannoun, a mathematics and statistics major who has not taken biology in college.

Hannoun said the initiative presented an opportunity to apply the mathematics she has learned. "I thought it would be a really interesting opportunity to learn a discipline that was outside of mathematics. Biologists and mathematicians definitely do things differently and it has been interesting to learn how people with different scientific backgrounds can work together," she said.

Ricky Ellestad, another mathematics major, felt similarly. "This presents a great opportunity to apply what we've been learning in classes for the past couple years," he said. "In classes you learn all these formulas and with this research, you're actually applying that and putting all that to use, seeing what it's like in the real world."

Ellestad admits getting used to the biology part of his research took some getting used to.

A $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, titled Quantitative Skills in Biology through Scientific Inquiry, helped launch the program, which the students participate in in addition to their normal coursework.

Dr. Brian Walton, assistant professor of mathematics and statistics, pursued the grant because it gives students an opportunity to work in an interdisciplinary, mentor-based setting.

"More than just simply participating in a laboratory experience, we want students to think about what they are investigating and enable them to design an experiment that addresses the question they are trying to understand by using both biology and mathematics in the process," Walton said.

The grant, awarded in September 2007, will fund the program for five years. Students spend 18 months in the program, which includes eight weeks of intensive research during the summer before their senior year. Each research team comprises a biology major, a mathematics and statistics major, a biology faculty member and a mathematics and statistics faculty member. The teams work together to develop a research project associated with ongoing JMU biology research.

Topic areas for the initial groups were microarray analysis of bacterial gene expression, comparisons of mutant strain bacteria, biomechanical response of rat tails to heat stimuli, and anti-fungal bacteria transmission for amphibian survival.  

Along with weekly research team meetings, students involved in the program participate in biweekly large group seminars to discuss topics of common interest as an overview of issues relating to math and biology. Recent discussions have focused on job opportunities in the intersection of math and biology and how math and biology concepts can help in teaching.

Student participants receive a $1,000 scholarship during each of the three semesters they conduct their research. Each student also received a $4,000 stipend for the eight-week summer research. Each will receive a $500 completion award upon successfully finishing the year and a half of research.  In total, the $7,500 provides a substantial incentive for many students interested in pursuing research at the undergraduate level.  Money from the grant also is used for general lab maintenance and supplies and to offset travel costs for students who will bring their research to conferences and symposia over the next few semesters.

"Historically, JMU has been recognized as a great place for undergraduate research.  I think this will really help us to be recognized not just for general research but to really strengthen our claim to having high-quality, interdisciplinary research for students," Walton said. "We are training students to work well in the lab and to be prepared to work well with and appreciate the usefulness of collaboration in the professional scientific world."

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Published: Monday, February 1, 2010

Last Updated: Tuesday, May 25, 2021

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