October 07, 2005
Life scientists today are as likely to be found crunching data at a computer keyboard as probing Petri dishes in a laboratory. It's also not uncommon to find a mathematician taking a break from equations to pore over a graduate-level genetics textbook.
To help its undergraduates prepare for these career-crossover demands, Michigan State University will use a $905,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to enhance undergraduate education at the intersection of biology and mathematics.
"With the growing need for scientists to work on fundamental biological problems using mathematical techniques, MSU stands to become the leader in producing such uniquely qualified individuals," said Peter Bates, professor and chairperson of the MSU Department of Mathematics and one of five principal investigators on the NSF project.
Advances in molecular biology, genetic regulatory networks, cell signaling and other rapidly developing areas in the biosciences are producing vast quantities of raw data.
For example, a single lab investigating proteins and their functions, a field called proteomics, can generate 12 terabytes of data in one year. That's about the same amount of information stored in the Library of Congress.
The challenge for scientists is to sift through this information to understand highly complex processes, many of which become clear only after sophisticated statistical analysis and data mining.
It's work with a big potential payoff, especially in the area of customized drug development. In basic research, too, fundamental processes in biology are often best described by mathematical formulas.
"Discovering and analyzing these formulas is at the core of many new developments in biomedical sciences," Bates said.
The problem, according to Bates, is mathematical modeling and analysis, computation and higher-level statistical techniques traditionally are not part of biologists' training. Likewise, mathematicians, statisticians and computer scientists often are not familiar with even the basics of biology.
The five-year project, called "Integrated Analysis of Genetic and Cellular Networks," will provide undergraduate students with research experiences in both mathematical and biological sciences.
Eight juniors and eight seniors will be selected annually to participate. They will work together to solve biological problems -- understanding molecular structures and mechanisms, gene expression, metabolism and cell signaling -- using quantitative skills and software.
"These students, I am sure, will find personal satisfaction in being prepared to address problems that have a significant and direct impact on life," Bates said.
Along with Bates, the other principal investigators, all MSU faculty, are: Chichia Chiu, associate professor, and Moxun Tang, assistant professor, Department of Mathematics; Donna Koslowsky, associate professor, Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics; and Kathleen Gallo, associate professor, Department of Physiology.
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