COLLEGE STATION --
Ten years ago, the Texas A&M University College of Science made a commitment to students in its most popular undergraduate major, biology, embarking on a new approach to traditional teaching involving more mathematics and statistics.
In 2004, Texas A&M earned selection by the National Science Foundation (NSF)
as one of five sites for a bold, nationwide experiment -- Integrated Undergraduate Research Experiences in Biological and Mathematical Sciences
, an initiative designed to enhance higher education in the biological, physical, mathematical and information sciences and better reflect the profound changes that have occurred in biological research and communication during the past two decades.
Texas A&M's version of the NSFs revolutionary statement, the Undergraduate Program in Biological and Mathematical Sciences (UBM)
, integrates curricula in the three departments involved in the $1.75 million grant (biology, mathematics and statistics). Moreover, since 2010, Texas A&M has been partnering with Prairie View A&M University
in the comprehensive effort to offer unprecedented opportunity for hands-on research in a variety of burgeoning life sciences-related areas, from protein analysis and biological clocks to cardiovascular dynamics and population ecology.
Program organizers say the goal is two-fold: enhanced educational experiences and better prepared graduates destined to enter careers and environments that are increasingly interdisciplinary in nature.
"Biology is becoming more and more mathematical, although it historically had been the least mathematical," said Dr. H. Joseph Newton, dean of the Texas A&M College of Science. "For example, students in biology were not required to take calculus. Now, it has changed. The large datasets produced by whole genome sequencing projects indicate the need for biology majors to know more and more about math and statistics."
Dr. Thomas McKnight, professor and head of the Texas A&M Department of Biology
, notes that mathematical components have existed in biology for many years but traditionally have not been reflected in the curriculum. He believes the UBM program has allowed for real-world collaboration between the biology, mathematics and statistics departments that will better prepare Texas A&M students for biological research in the 21st century.
"The students benefit from working with biology and math faculty on real research projects and from having nearly all of the $1.75 million budget go toward student stipends," McKnight said. "Our department has benefited by using the UBM program to attract and retain some of our best students. And overall, it has led to many department-wide improvements in the way we educate biology majors at Texas A&M."
An executive committee composed of biology, mathematics and statistics faculty oversees the UBM program, which most recently was renewed in 2010 by the NSF through 2015. The committee is responsible for all aspects of program development, from new curricula in biology and applied mathematics to increasing participation in what they hope will eventually become a new major offered in the College of Science -- mathematical biology, a growing field that applies mathematics and modeling to biologists' questions involving space and time.
"The goal of UBM is to promote undergraduate research," said Dr. Jay R. Walton
, professor of mathematics and principal investigator for the UBM grant. "We hope to get students to consider research careers and to help train them for graduate school. We are very pleased with UBM so far. The program has been very successful."
Each year, the program recruits 20 students -- 10 biology majors and 10 mathematics majors -- from various backgrounds to participate in a new, common curriculum which incorporates biological and mathematical training, a qualitative biology seminar and first-hand training in different research programs. With the addition of Prairie View A&M in the grant's second cycle, Walton says the program has added a jointly held weekly seminar, the Quantitative Biology Seminar (QBS), which is conducted via video conferencing technology purchased for Prairie View through the UBM grant and facilitated by Texas A&M's Institute for Applied Mathematics and Computational Science (IAMCS)
. In addition, Texas A&M faculty, such as Walton and Dr. Masami Fujiwara in the Texas A&M Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, often mentor Prairie View A&M students in their individual research projects.
Walton notes the popularity of the program, in combination with Texas A&M's rising overall undergraduate numbers, has helped fuel an increase in student enrollment in both the biology and mathematics departments.
"Math majors who have an interest in life sciences see that they can combine the two, and it's the same for the biology department," Walton said.
The combination continues to be attractive and exciting to Texas A&M students, current and former, for a variety of reasons. Senior biology major Alden P. Hall '14 chose to apply as a freshman based on her interest in research after first hearing about the program during her new student conference. She says the QBS class is one of her favorite aspects of the program because each week, she is exposed to new research taking place all over the campus.
"Math is a subject I have always enjoyed, and because I was majoring in biology, I thought the UBM program seemed like a perfect fit for me," Hall said. "I knew that the program was a rare and valuable opportunity to learn the techniques and thought processes utilized by biologists and mathematicians at a tier one research university."
Hall currently works with the model fungus Neurospora crassa
under the supervision of Texas A&M biologist Dr. Deborah Bell-Pedersen
, studying the effect of a specific transcription factor, Adv-1, in regulating circadian rhythms. After graduation, Hall hopes to go to medical school, become a licensed physician and participate in medical research involving Alzheimer's disease.
"The UBM Program has taught me how to think like a scientist," Hall said. "I have learned molecular genetics lab techniques, I have developed an interest in how the human body functions, and I have been inspired by the many role models the program has placed in my life. It takes a lot of hard work and time, but it is absolutely worth it to raise a scientific question and know that you can be a part of figuring it out."
Experience in correlating mathematics and biology has proven to be a formidable asset in life after Aggieland, whether the chosen path involves academia or industry. Tanner B. Wilson '12
, a Brown-Rudder Award recipient who graduated with a bachelors in applied mathematical sciences, a masters in mathematics and proteomics research experience inspired by a UBM-required collaborative project with Texas A&M statistician Dr. Alan Dabney
, is now in medical school at the University of Texas-Southwestern.
"I thought this coming into college, and now I'm convinced: Medicine can only go so far without using high-level mathematics," said Wilson, who used his natural knack for numbers, mathematical modeling and related concepts to develop better processes for blood transfusions during his undergraduate student days.
Another applied mathematics graduate and UBM participant, Danielle Schroeder Guffey '09, is now a research associate in biostatistics at Baylor College of Medicine after broadening her own skillset as a lab technician in Texas A&M biologist Dr. Adam Jones'
research group, where she studied the genes of pipefish and seahorses.
"UBM focuses on bio-math, but a lot of things in biology focus on statistics, and UBM exposed me to this," Schroeder Guffey said. "UBM is really great about exposing you to new research. You also have a one-on-one research experience with the professors, and you don't really get that in a classroom setting."
To learn more about the UBM program and how to apply, visit http://www.math.tamu.edu/ubm/
For additional information about related undergraduate research opportunities in the College of Science, go to http://www.science.tamu.edu/research/REU/
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