Public Release: 

New quantitative skills curriculum wins funding

National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS)

KNOXVILLE--A unique program developed by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis (NIMBioS) to bring quantitative education to graduate students in the life sciences has been awarded funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF), one of only three BWF awards to be made nationally.

"Enhancing Quantitative and Data Science Education for Graduate Students in Biomedical Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville" prioritizes current research topics suggested by biology faculty as a focal point for teaching PhD students in biomedical science.

Faculty from life sciences departments at UT--including the Departments of Biochemistry & Cellular and Molecular Biology, Microbiology, and the UT-Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Graduate School in Genome Science & Technology--will identify the key quantitative concepts and methods to be studied. Mathematics faculty whose research focuses on applying mathematics and statistics to biological applications will also lend their expertise. NIMBioS will coordinate the effort.

The new curriculum has three components: entry-level PhD students will learn core concepts and techniques of quantitative life science; mid-level PhD students will undergo more intensive training in quantitative skills through exposure to experimental design and biological data via case studies; and for more advance students, a peer-learning community will be created in order for students to network and share skills with junior students through tutorials and user groups. In all, specific publications crowd-sourced by UT faculty that have been published in recent years will guide learning.

The program's metrics for success are being facilitated by staff from the National Institute for STEM Evaluation and Research at NIMBioS.

While the initial proposal focuses on educating students at UT, it is expected that the model can be disseminated widely on a national scale. The flexible approach allows for institutions to choose focal points of study that are unique and appropriate to a particular institution. For UT's approach, many of the newer life science faculty have strong quantitative backgrounds and have already been involved in research activities at NIMBioS, in addition to already established faculty members. These faculty members comprise the project team who will devise and deliver the curriculum.

"There is a broad set of skills to drawn upon in the quantitative life sciences, from experimental design and statistics to bioinformatics and mathematical modeling. The educational question is what to prioritize. The value of our approach for this BWF-funded project is that it exposes students to the essential components that our faculty have identified as key. This encourages students to develop expertise in describing and understanding complex biological systems and construction and analysis of models that predict and control biomedical systems," said NIMBioS director and the proposal's principal investigator Louis J. Gross.

Work on the new curriculum is already underway and is expected to continue over the next year. The grant provides $150,000 over the next two years.

The award is one of only three from the Quantitative and Statistical Thinking in the Life Sciences grant program offered this year by BWF, an independent private foundation. The one-time award provides support for faculty time spent on developing improved approaches to training graduate students for a more quantitative and statistically-informed approach to thinking and a more model-driven approach to doing research in the biomedical and related life sciences. Up to four awards are offered through the BWF program. The goal is to seed development of PhDs who will be more quantitative, more formally prepared in experimental design, and more able to think with and from models and statistics, according to the BWF website.

The other grant recipients are the University of Chicago for quantitative biology fellowships and the University of Washington for a graduate training program in quantitative sciences.

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The National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis is an NSF-supported center that brings together researchers from around the world to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries to investigate solutions to basic and applied problems in the life sciences. NIMBioS is supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

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