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Sept. 2, 2011

Leading Liberal Arts Colleges Receive Grant to Engage Undergrads in Biomathematics Research

“There is a massive vein of information that needs to be mined at the intersection of mathematics and life sciences and the miners need to be trained early on,” Robert Dorit, Smith College

1NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Four of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges received a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to form a consortium aimed at training the next generation of scientists in the rapidly emerging field of biomathematics.

The funding will establish the Four College Biomathematics Consortium (4CBC) to support joint investigations by faculty and students at Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Hampshire colleges into the most challenging life research questions.

In recent years, biology research has generated an enormous amount of scientific data – from genome sequences to environmental shifts around the globe – that holds the potential to answer fundamental questions about life on earth. But turning that potential into reality will require the knowledge of a variety of experts, said Ileana Streinu, Charles N. Clark Professor of Computer Science at Smith.

“There is a massive vein of information that needs to be mined at the intersection of mathematics and life sciences and the miners need to be trained early on,” said Robert Dorit, associate professor of biological sciences at Smith. “Extracting meaning from the flood of raw information will be one of the greatest challenges for scientists in the 21st century.”

Streinu, Dorit and Christophe Golé, professor of mathematics at Smith, along with seven additional faculty members from each of the four colleges secured the grant for the consortium. The additional investigators include Amy Wagaman, Tanya Leise and Sheila Jaswal at Amherst; Craig T. Woodward and Martha Hoopes at Mount Holyoke; Lee Spector and Sarah Hews at Hampshire.

Together, they say, life scientists and mathematicians might untangle the relationship between the amino acid sequence of a protein and an inherited disease, for example, or design a computer program to predict changes in marine life resulting from warming oceans. In addition to new researchers, new tools are needed to cope with the amount of available data.

“A trowel is a great tool if you are digging out a hole in the garden but it is not helpful if you are digging out an avalanche,” said Dorit.

Funding will provide stipends for the faculty and students to team up on biomathematics research investigations. Academics from both mathematics and the life sciences will advise student cohorts working on research projects that involve both fields. To stimulate interactions among disciplines, once a month this fall at each of the four institutions, faculty researchers will offer seminars for their counterparts about their work.

In the spring, students will take a new course, “Frontiers in Mathematical Biology,” in which the faculty teams will rotate to introduce and interest students in partnering on the investigations. The program is targeted to juniors, who will be able to work on the research for at least two years.

Streinu will serve as the inaugural director of the program, a responsibility that will rotate annually among the three Smith faculty principal investigators.


Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Kristen Cole, media relations director
Smith College
(413) 585-2190

Max Pearlstein, news writer
Mount Holyoke College
(413) 538-2809

Elaine Thomas, communications director
Hampshire College
(413) 559-5482

Peter Rooney, director of public affairs
Amherst College
(413) 524-2321

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