For Immediate Release — December 20, 2004


Mary E. McCrank

Media Relations Officer

(585) 245-5516



GENESEO, N.Y. — The National Science Foundation has awarded a five-year grant totaling $806,000 to the State University of New York at Geneseo to support its Undergraduate Biomathematical Research Career Initiative.

The goal of the initiative — a collaboration of the college’s mathematics, biology and chemistry departments launched this academic year — is to train students for graduate school and careers in biomathematics and address problems that reach across these disciplinary borders.

The BioMath Group, as it’s informally called, was formed by Anthony J. Macula, associate professor of math; Chris Leary, the Spencer Roemer Professor of Mathematics; Wendy K. Pogozelski, associate professor of chemistry; and Gregg Hartvigsen, associate professor of biology.

"There are many goals of this grant, but one of them is pushing a cultural shift to merge these disciplines," said Hartvigsen.

The grant provides continuing financial assistance for 16 students in two related projects and will institute broad, integrated curricular improvement in the area of biomathematics. One of the goals is to increase the number of students and faculty performing research at the intersection of the two fields.

"We’re trying to increase the number of undergraduate students doing research that integrates math, biology and chemistry," said Leary.

The research-based program combines new and revised problem-based curricular components — such as calculus for biologists, modeling biological systems, biological data analysis, discrete mathematics, graph theory, probability, statistics and computational molecular analysis — with research activities ranging from biomolecular computing to individual-based, evolutionary modeling of food webs (interconnected food chains) that push the boundaries of modern techniques in understanding complex problems.

The initiative provides students the opportunity to blend new classroom-based studies with research projects at the frontier of biomathematics. These projects also serve as a stimulus for faculty development and curricular innovation.

About three-quarters of the grant total goes to students. The majority of that is for stipends for students conducting research, while a portion also provides for them to travel to conferences to present their research. The remainder of the grant will support the professors’ involvement as mentors to the students. The grant also allows for one of the four professors to offer a new course each semester in support of the program. These courses include Computational Molecular Biology, Modeling Biological Systems, Biomathematics Seminar, DNA for Mathematicians and INTD101: Understanding Student Social Networks.

In addition, the college will sponsor an annual undergraduate conference focused on research in biomathematics, bring outside experts to campus to run workshops and observe the accomplishments of Geneseo’s research. The first conference is set for April.

SUNY Geneseo has matched the grant with $19,000 in equipment and a total of $25,000 for instructional support for the next five years.

Leary said the grant will better help Geneseo prepare students so they can become "leading researchers in the future."

The past decade has seen remarkable change in research because of computers. "Because of computer development, the barrier between disciplines is fading," said Macula.

Pogozelski agrees, noting that computers now can do complex mathematical models. "Biology is increasingly reliant on mathematics," she said.

Computers also can recreate ecosystems, allowing researchers to better understand biological systems and make predictions about the future, said Hartvigsen.

"We can gain insight in how nature works by using these systems," he said. "We’re able to understand that much better by doing it in a computer."

Juniors Amy Zielinski and Jackie Dresch are studying the transmission of influenza, with Hartvigsen and Leary serving as their mentors. The students have been working on the project since their sophomore year, and, Dresch said she hopes the research can be continued until graduation.

Zielinski, a 20-year-old biology major from Elma, N.Y., and Dresch, a 20-year-old math major from Liverpool, N.Y., plan to further their studies after graduating from Geneseo.

Zielinski and Dresch used a computer to create networks made up of nodes (the hosts) and edges (connections between hosts who know one another). They vaccinate a certain percentage of hosts using one of five strategies and then infect the population with influenza. Based on the percentage of the population that becomes infected, they evaluate the efficacy of each strategy.

Zielinski and Dresch said they have learned valuable skills they didn’t expect.

"As a biology major, this research has helped me understand the critical relationship between biology and mathematics," said Zielinski. "As a freshman in college, I was sure that I wanted to attend medical school after I graduated. This research has sparked my interest in other areas, such as epidemiology, and now I’m planning to at least apply to graduate schools with bio-math programs."

Dresch said she has learned the intricate part math plays in biological research. "Before I started working on this research, I wanted to study nothing but pure mathematics. Since I’ve been on the team, I have become much more interested in biology, and science in general," she said. "I no longer see biology as that dreadful subject I took to fill some core requirement, but something that can actually help me better understand things later in life, especially when I get to graduate school and begin studying more applied mathematics or want to do research."

— 30 —