Math-Biology undergraduate education boosted by NSF grant
Robin Baker, a sophomore from Moscow, eagerly shows off the equipment she has helped build that will now be employed in a research project on biogeography, or the statistical modeling of bacterial ecology and the special interactions of bacteria. Baker is one of eight students that make up the initial cadre of UI students in an NSF-funded program to encourage interdisciplinary Mathematics and Biology undergraduate programs at the University of Idaho and Washington State University. The $700,000 grant to fund the program was secured last year by a team of researchers from both schools.
Baker and the other students recruited for the first UI group participated in a seminar course last spring where they were introduced to the various research opportunities in faculty labs. Based on what they saw in that seminar, they chose a lab to work in, and this past summer began working in earnest on research projects in those labs. Baker had begun talking with Professor Larry Forney even before being selected to participate in the Math-Biology grant program, and is excited to now be working in Forney's lab. She feels it's a great opportunity to begin a research program such as this in just her second year at the university, and hopes to stay with the program through to graduation.
In fact, getting students involved early is one of the goals of the program, according to Biology Professor Barrie Robison, one of the project's lead investigators. "We want to recruit students by the beginning of their junior year so they have at least two years of research," Robison says. "It's often during the 2nd year when the light bulb really goes on."
The program aims for having teams of students in each lab -- a Mathematics student and a Biology student working together on a project under the direction of a faculty member. According to Robison, the students then learn to communicate between disciplines. "It's stuff you can't put in a classroom. They end up positioned perfectly for graduate work." Baker seconds that assessment of the benefits students derive from the program. "Working in a research lab is a learning experience in so many ways. I am learning about how the scientific community collaborates and engages in discussion and mutual learning," she says. "Participating in undergraduate research helped me make a lot of connections between the material I am learning in classes; it gives me a more personal understanding of many biological concepts."
The vast majority of grant funds goes directly to support students in the program. Each student receives a $3600 summer research stipend as well as $1000 per semester for their participation. The next set of four UI student participants will be recruited beginning this fall.