National quantitative biology education conference held at UD
Hal White, standing, oversees a lively discussion during a breakout session on "Assessment of Quantitative Skills in Biology Courses."
Deborah Allen, standing, leads a session on "Writing More Effective Proposals to the NSF UBM Program."


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9:44 a.m., June 15, 2010----The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Undergraduate Science Education Program at the University of Delaware sponsored the fourth in an annual series of national conferences on undergraduate quantitative biology education from June 9-11 at Clayton Hall.

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This and the earlier meetings were held to address an important national concern as voiced in the national study, BIO 2010. This study concluded that in order to be successful undergraduates in the life sciences had to be better trained in the quantitative sciences.

Three institutions -- UD, Emory University and the University of Arizona -- have recently formed a partnership to promote interdisciplinary mathematics and biology education by continuing to offer yearly meetings across the country.

The UD conference was titled “Education on the Edge -- A Conference on Innovative Undergraduate Education at the Interface of Mathematics and Biology.”

Organizers of the meeting were John Pelesko, Gilberto Schleiniger and Tobin Driscoll, all associate professors in the Department of Mathematical Sciences; David Usher, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences; and Hal White, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and director of the UD HHMI program.

The conference attracted more than 60 attendees from across the nation and featured prominent national speakers including Robert Philips from the California Institute of Technology, Louis Gross from the University of Tennessee, Laurie Heyer from Davidson College and Pak-Wing Fok, assistant professor of mathematical sciences from the University of Delaware.

In his talk, Fok described his research showing a mathematical model that can explain the observed rates at which enzymes repair damaged DNA. His model predicted repair rates that were consistent with experimental data. These predicted rates were much faster than previously seemed possible theoretically.

Highlights of the meeting included four workshops on different aspects of education at the interface of mathematics and biology. These were led by Fok, Patricia Marsteller of Emory University, Deborah Allen of the National Science Foundation and on leave from UD's Department of Biological Sciences, Heyer and White.

Fok's workshop dealt with strategies for teaching calculus to students in the life sciences, and Marsteller worked through a problem-based learning activity that incorporated quantitative reasoning in a biological context. Allen led a discussion about various NSF funding opportunities for projects in mathematical biology, and White's workshop with Heyer focused on assessing students' quantitative skills in life science courses.

The advisory board for the Quantitative Biology Program at UD held a panel on education in quantitative biology from the point of view of researchers outside the academy. It led to a lively and informative discussion.

The meeting culminated in a discussion with attendees of what they would like to see offered at future meetings in Arizona, Georgia and Delaware. When UD hosts the conference again in 2014, the new interdisciplinary science and engineering building will be complete, with undergraduate teaching laboratories and adjacent problem-based learning classroom facilities to accommodate innovative interdisciplinary education such as quantitative biology.

In his remarks, George Watson, dean of the UD College of Arts and Sciences, described this building of the future and invited attendees to see the building in action when they return in 2014.

Photos by Ambre Alexander