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Cross Trainers

When we picture biologists at work, we tend to think of lab-coated scientists peering into microscopes or fiddling with test tubes. And when we think about mathematicians, images of white boards covered in complex numerical formulas come to mind. The idea that the two disciplines could come together doesn’t always enter the picture.

NC State’s new undergraduate program in biomathematics aims to change all that, by changing mathematicians’ and biologists’ perceptions of each other, and showing them that interdisciplinary research is the future of science.

Last spring, math major John Nardini and biology major Amanda Choi were among 20 undergraduates taking an inaugural course on mathematical modeling in biology. After the course, Nardini and Choi were joined by math major Laura Poag and biology major Tori Huffman to do some more practical research – in their case, learning how cells react when the human immune system combats illness.

But one of the most interesting things the students learned was how differently they approach the same material, and how learning one another’s scientific “language” can lead to some great collaboration.

“For a mathematician, work like this is primarily about developing a mathematical model that gives us general information about how cells divide when they’re healthy and when they’re diseased,” Nardini says. “So for example, we would create this model, then take the cells of an HIV patient and compare them to the model in order to determine how likely they are to develop AIDS and when that might happen. So that would help their doctors figure out a course of treatment.”

The biologists had a slightly different approach.

“A biologist is concerned with what is happening within the cell that produces features we expect to see in the model,” Huffman says. “We tend to focus more on the details of individual processes occurring within normal cells and how they change during infection, while the mathematicians are more broad in their attempts to model the overall trends,” Huffman says. “On the other hand, when dealing with numerical data, the mathematicians were far more meticulous.”

“We do have very different ways of thinking about the same thing,” Choi adds. “Taking the course and working on a project showed us how we can work together and help each other solve these problems.”

Their work led to a trip to Barcelona to collaborate with and learn from scientists there, as well as contributions to a paper about the research that they hope to publish.

With the creation of the new College of Sciences, NC State is focusing on bringing scientific disciplines together. One of the first experiments in interdisciplinary research for undergraduates is in biomathematics – in which mathematicians and biologists learn how they can work together to solve health-related puzzles.

Math and biology majors can take courses in mathematical modeling and differential equations that are geared toward life sciences, and that will serve as lead-ins to more practical research projects. These projects are co-mentored by mathematicians and biologists. The aim is to make their work accessible to one another and promote cross-disciplinary research.

“They aren’t trying to convert biologists into mathematicians or vice-versa, but give us the ability to understand each other’s language so we can collaborate,” Huffman says.

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