UD receives its fifth HHMI undergraduate science education grant
Gilberto Schleiniger
David Usher
Hal White
Zariel Johnson (left) and Kelly Pippins, senior quantitative biology majors, shown last year conducting undergraduate research on competition between bird species.

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2:04 p.m., May 21, 2010----The University of Delaware is one of 50 research universities nationwide to receive a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) for innovative programs to strengthen undergraduate and precollege science education. The four-year, $1.2 million grant, which begins Sept. 1, is the fifth HHMI award that UD has received.

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Through its four previous grants the University has initiated and sustained nationally recognized undergraduate science education programs in research, quantitative biology and minority access to science. The new HHMI award seeks to improve these programs and embark on new interdisciplinary initiatives.

The goals of these initiatives are to promote connections between mathematics and the life sciences in two ways: by improving the quantitative skills of students interested in the life sciences; and by expanding and improving on UD's nationally recognized undergraduate degree program in quantitative biology.

HHMI, which announced the awards on Thursday, May 20, said it invited 197 research universities to apply for grants and received applications from 165 of those institutions. The institute awarded a total of $70 million to 50 of the applicants, in 30 states and the District of Columbia, with each grant ranging from $800,000 to $2 million.

“By selecting these 50 grantees, we highlight areas and approaches that we think are particularly powerful,” said David Asai, director of HHMI's precollege and undergraduate programs. “We hope that universities across the country -- even those that are not HHMI grantees -- will turn to these programs when they think about improving science education.”

Delaware's emphasis on quantitative biology includes a new major in the interdisciplinary field, which is housed in the Department of Mathematical Sciences. Students take the same required courses as other biology majors but add a heavy load of math courses, some of them specifically designed to include problems and examples with a life-sciences focus.

Profs. Tobin Driscoll, John A. Pelesko, Louis Rossi and Gilberto Schleiniger from the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Prasad Dhurjati from the Department of Chemical Engineering were instrumental in the design of the curriculum and new courses for the Bachelor of Science in Quantitative Biology. They also have been teaching courses for the program, helping biology faculty include more math in biology courses and both advising students in the major and mentoring them in undergraduate research.

“The fact that the Department of Mathematical Sciences has a strong tradition of research in applied mathematics and of collaboration across disciplines played an important role in facilitating the creation of the Quantitative Biology major, housed in Mathematical Sciences,” Schleiniger said. For example, he noted that a bachelor's degree in math and economics was started many years ago in collaboration with the Department of Economics.

“Mathematical modeling is absolutely essential in systems biology, to explain such things as the transmission of a disease and how a disease -- from swine flu to cancer -- operates in a population,” said David Usher, professor of biological sciences at UD, one of the founders of the quantitative biology program and assistant director of the University's HHMI undergraduate science education program.

“Because mathematicians speak one language and biologists speak another, communication between the two can be a major problem” in research that requires expertise in both disciplines, Usher said. “By training someone in quantitative biology, now you have someone who speaks both languages.”

Hal White, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and UD's HHMI program director, said the institute's support enabled the University to create a section of a required calculus course that is especially relevant to what students are learning in their biology classes. That initiative, combined with integrating more math into biology classes, will help future biologists become more comfortable with math and understand its growing importance to their field.

The idea for the University's quantitative biology program began with a 2002 report from the National Research Council, BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists, which cited a need for biologists to have stronger math skills. The report also noted that students with an interest in and talent for math often overlook biology as a field of study in favor of a science with more emphasis on math.

“I think if biology students become more aware of how mathematics is used in biology and graduate with a sense that they're not afraid of mathematics, that would be a great success,” White said. “Similarly, we hope to integrate aspects of biology and chemistry in a way that will interest life science majors. It is convenient that these initiatives coincide with the new undergraduate teaching laboratories planned in the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory soon to be constructed.

“Through these initiatives, we strive to stimulate attitudes of inquiry in our students so that they go beyond the facts and seek understanding in the classroom and in the laboratory. Our long experience with active learning pedagogies such as problem-based learning and peer-led team learning in undergraduate science courses provides the means for stimulating attitudes of inquiry.”

The new HHMI grant follows previous major awards from the institute to strengthen and enrich science education at UD -- a four-year, $1.5 million grant in 2006; $1.7 million in 2002; $1.6 million in 1998; and a $1 million award in 1992.

Over the years of HHMI funding, the program has enhanced UD's undergraduate research program, enabled the operation of the nationally recognized Network of Undergraduate Collaborative Learning Experiences for Underrepresented Scholars (NUCLEUS) and promoted active-learning programs in the sciences.

Article by Ann Manser

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