Integrative Biomathematical Learning Alliance Across Academic Departments

Gregory D. Goins, , North Carolina A & T State University

Across the nation, many generalized programs have focused on retention of minority students in the sciences with varying degrees of success. Paradoxically, this challenge exists despite expanding career opportunities in industry, academia, and government for those skilled at the intersection of biology and mathematics. Here I describe a cross-departmental learning alliance (iBLEND- an Integrative Biomathematics Learning and Empowerment Network for Diversity) which directly targets these recognized challenges. Our goal is for the iBLEND project to have significant spillover effects for our university by developing new interdisciplinary collaborations that benefit our students. The iBLEND is a proactive, intensive approach in order to bridge campus chasms for both faculty and undergraduate students by positively influencing academic programs through interdisciplinary training coupled with strong evaluation and assessments. By leveraging our recent surge of competitive research activity, innovative instruction, and collaboration, the iBLEND advances our transformation to the next level by establishing a broader bridge for our undergraduates at the interface of mathematics and biology. In working together, the math and biology students learned to bridge language barriers inhibiting interdisciplinary explorations. Students are closely involved with faculty mentors in core laboratories and developed cross-disciplinary research skills that enhanced their post-graduate career opportunities. Using systems biology tools combined with targeted mathematics classroom work, students merge data from their lab bench experiments with mathematical models to determine how various changes impacted an overall organism and its functions. The students have hands-on training with a myriad of computational, simulations, data mining and data analysis tools needed in approaching their projects.

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NCATSU) is a historically minority-serving land-grant institution with an overall enrollment of approximately 11,000 undergraduates. Currently, the Biology Department has over 500 majors and the Mathematics Departments has over 100 majors. Undergraduates in both departments are over 90% African American representing a diverse talent pool for broadening participation in science. Although NCATSU is the largest Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in North Carolina, we are aware that overcoming under-representation in biology and mathematics is difficult. For instance, given the mission as a land grant HBCU, our entering freshman are admitted having a wide-range of prior high school success. Too many NCATSU freshmen exhibit deficits in critical thinking and writing, as compared to underrepresented as compared to the percentage of undergraduates at majority institutions who go on to pursue freshmen at other institutions participating in the same study. These data are routinely disseminated as evidence in multiple ways to faculty, highlighting the need for excellent teaching, strong interdisciplinary training, and high-quality biomathematics-related research. We focus iBLEND activities relative to deep learning that crosses beyond conventional boundaries between biology, mathematics, computer science, physics and chemistry disciplines.

Our integrative model not only raises the bar for the incoming high-performing students, but seeks avenues that can amplify the overall supply of students who emerge from NCATSU on a competitive trajectory for biomathematical graduate study. Innovative to our approach is that all of the research projects bring undergraduate researchers to our centrally located Molecular Genetics, Genomics, and Proteomics Laboratory and the Applied Mathematics Modeling Laboratory. The purpose of our core lab is to provide interdisciplinary research and training for both undergraduates and faculty. The core laboratories include biologists, mathematicians, and computational bio-physicists, from each of the basic science departments involved in laboratory research. This shared space provides natural opportunities for our undergraduates to fuse conceptual understanding between research and classroom activity. We have found that the core labs provide iBLEND a supportive dynamic sphere for high expectations and academic challenges for our undergraduates. We believe shared spaces are essential to provide natural opportunities for undergraduates to fuse conceptual understanding between research and classroom activity. Hence iBLEND takes full advantage of the capabilities of our newly established Molecular Biology Core Laboratory. The core laboratories also serve as a training ground for faculty to learn new techniques. Ramifications from this research are particularly well-suited for spirited discussion and debate that further establish meaningful relationships between mathematics and biology. The strong interdisciplinary research projects and training are built on research strengths of faculty in the Departments of Biology and Mathematics enriched with collaborations with neighbor Research-1 institutions. The central geographic location of NCATSU between Wake Forest Univ., UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke Univ., and NC State Univ., and other institutions provides easy implementation for several day visits and field trips during the academic semesters with collaborating laboratories on our project.

The iBLEND research and training are coupled with mechanisms that reduce barriers to student success. As many of our students are first generation college attendees, there is a wealth of life experiences and personal connections to these projects that give real-world research purpose and provide students with every opportunity to succeed in biomathematics. The lab research described above is specifically designed to overcome pre-conceived notions concerning advanced mathematics or computationally-rich courses. This is particularly true for minority students where underrepresentation in research careers goes back to a complex interplay of socio-economic forces that impact academic achievement. Used appropriately, mathematical models can represent pathways in a physically and biologically realistic manner and generate novel and useful hypotheses. The modeling intellectual focus and tools span the range from prediction to identification of mechanistic structures. This research theme is specifically structured to complement the individual strengths and circumstances of each research mentor. Students gain a better understanding of the governing processes at the molecular, cellular, and organismal level through mathematical analysis of the overall dynamical system models and various numerical methods and simulations. The student iBLEND intellectual focus is on the development of mathematical skills in set theory, linear algebra, differential equations, number theory, numerical analysis, stochastic and deterministic processes, topology, and computational mathematics. This aids in the development of analytical argumentative strategies to better understand high-throughput biological data which includes molecular genetics, host-pathogen microbiology, comparative and functional genomics, phylogenetics, plant physiology, ecology, and genomic instability and oncology.

Because of the many positive impacts, some even beyond intended project goals, iBLEND has significant buy-in from administration, faculty, and students. We gain buy-in from stakeholders by: (1) working from the ground-up with administration to promote campus-wide biomathematics research and training; (2) fostering associations between research and regular undergraduate academic courses; (3) creating and disseminating biomathematics teaching and learning modules and (4) enhancing learning community support at the interface of mathematics and biology. Since 2006, NCATSU has hired many new faculty with significant biomathematical research portfolios to share with undergraduates in iBLEND. Hence, we have a solid cadre of faculty and staff pursuing research and shared discovery at the interface of mathematics and biology, and all are part of this proposed work.

These measures that have increased undergraduate research and research training included:
-Collective math-biology departmental faculty conceptualization and crafting of grant proposals
-Emphasis on faculty and student development in research and pedagogy
-Provision of collaborative math-biology departmental retreats to foster new ideas
-Emphasis on freshman orientations specific for biology and math majors
-Distribution of bio-math shared documents through centralized computer servers
-Broadening team-taught bio-math courses and research contributions
-Providing a weekly bio-math seminars and annual bio-math scientific research symposia

Furthermore, we have access to multiple research laboratories within a 50 mile radius, as NCATSU is one of the seventeen public constituent institutions in the University of North Carolina (UNC) System. For our students, we leverage benefit with our partnerships through faculty research collaborations and 2-way scholarly exchanges of resources, training, and seminars. These established links represent a mutual win/win between NCATSU and Research-1 partner institutions and laboratories. Many of our research collaboration partners have Ph.D. graduate degree track programs, and therefore, iBLEND is viewed as a productive program to bring in underrepresented minority undergraduates having specific competencies related to mathematical biology.

Downloadable version of this essay