Biomath at SDSU: Leveraging Undergraduate Research

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Title of Abstract: Biomath at SDSU: Leveraging Undergraduate Research

Name of Author: Anca Segall
Author Company or Institution: San Diego State University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum
Approaches: Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Independent research, Mixed Approach
Keywords: interdisciplinary studies, team-based learning, mathematical biology, peer mentoring, independent research

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Peter Salamon, San Diego State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: The goal of the San Diego State University (SDSU) NSF-sponsored Undergraduates in Mathematics and Biology (Biomath) program was to increase the number of undergraduates who are trained in an interdisciplinary fashion and pursue studies in mathematical biology. The program addressed the need to educate students pursuing a traditional biology track to become conversant with mathematical skills, and to familiarize math students with biological questions and experimentation methods, and to educate them to apply their math skills to address biological problems. Our immediate goals were to train a multidisciplinary corps of students who worked in teams that addressed, in quantitative fashion, questions regarding DNA repair, DNA recombination, microbiomes in humans and the environment, and diversity in viral gene functions, among many other problems.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Students with a math or physics background were teamed with students pursuing a biological background. Each team had at least one graduate or senior undergraduate ‘peer’ mentor who was responsible for one-on-one teaching of methods of molecular biology and microbial genetics or computational methods. In addition, each team had at least two faculty mentors, one a biologist, the other a mathematician. Each team addressed a specific biological question using a combination of molecular, biochemical, and computational approaches. Student teams were expected to give at least bi-weekly presentations of their progress in which they discussed the problems they faced and, together with their graduate and faculty mentors, came up with solutions. Undergraduate students gave several informal oral presentations to the entire group of teams, gave a formal oral presentation at the end of each semester of work on the project, and gave a cumulative oral or poster presentation at one or more scientific meetings, regional or national. Each student completed a written report each semester, and the majority of students completed a written Undergraduate Honors Thesis, which was accompanied by a public presentation and defense to a committee of three faculty members. Finally, and most significantly, several of the teams have published or are in the process of publishing their work in scientific journals. Four such publications have resulted from the work of the teams, another is nearing publication, and a sixth is in preparation.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Students’ comprehension of both biological and mathematical aspects of their projects was evaluated continuously, both informally and formally (through work completed and presentations given). Students were evaluated on their ability to explain all aspects of their projects to a ‘naive’ audience of faculty colleagues and peer students. Written work was edited and evaluated one-on-one, and each student was given suggestions for improvement on their oral presentations. The projects themselves were evaluated based on whether the data obtained was amenable to meaningful quantitative analysis and interpretation. If the data was too variable for analysis, or if the mathematical modeling attempted did not fit the data (suggesting that the equations describing the biological process were inadequate to account for the target reactions), troubleshooting was performed to obtain higher quality data or, if not possible, ‘weak’ projects were dropped. Whenever possible, students performed at least two different assays of biological activity that gave independent and ‘orthogonal’ insights into the problem, and the results were compared quantitatively.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: The participating undergraduate students learned and cemented scientific concepts and quantitative skills, honed their oral and written presentation skills, and were extremely successful when applying to graduate or professional programs. The graduate student mentors, most of whom had biology backgrounds, gained expertise in being able to think in a mathematical way, and frequently learned to perform the same quantitative analyses or biological as their undergraduate ‘mentees’. In addition, they gained greater experience in one-on-one and small team mentoring of undergraduate students through a very challenging program. For the participating faculty mentors, new problems that would not have been otherwise approachable by either mentor alone were completed and published. With respect to the institution, the program has engendered two parallel courses, one undergraduate (the Biomath Workshop) and the other graduate level (Interdisciplinary Projects in Computational Sciences. In the future a cross-departmental Biomath track, possibly a certificate, is being considered in the College of Sciences.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: While recruiting motivated students, we found ourselves with students with extremely variable prior experience of either biology or mathematics. This meant that we had to be very flexible and nimble in tailoring our pedagogic approaches to the students’ needs. Our most successful approach was to involve graduate peer mentors to augment the faculty mentors’ efforts. Another important challenge was the recognition on the part of our dean and department chairs was that this was a valuable but extremely time-intensive for the faculty involved. We benefitted from the recognition, at many levels within the university administration, that this program was very beneficial and successful, despite being able to address only a limited number, ~12 - 16, of students each semester/year. In addition, we recognized that the most successful students were the ones that stayed with the program for at least 3 or 4 semesters.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have begun disseminating our experience to other institutions by presenting the program’s approaches and accomplishments at the system-wide Annual Meeting of the California State University Program in Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB), and by having our students present their work at other undergraduate meetings in Southern California and the Western U.S. Participation in the Vision and Change Workshop in Washington, D.C., is a further effort to present the successes and challenges of our program nationally.

Acknowledgements: The SDSU Biomath program was funded by NSF grant 0827278, Interdisciplinary Training in Biology and Mathematics, to AS and PS. We are also grateful to our colleagues Barbara Bailey, Jim Nulton, Terry Frey (SDSU), and Bjarne Andresen (University of Copenhagen), for their consistent participation as faculty mentors. We are similarly grateful to Marc Rideout, Ilham Naili, Victor Seguritan, Yi-An Lai, Jason Rostron, and John Waynelovich for their participation as graduate peer mentors to the undergraduate students.