Federal grant helps create MU math and life sciences program

Monday, August 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — A $2 million grant will help MU create a program that integrates mathematics and life sciences in order to build a learning community around their intersection.

In July, MU was awarded the grant, funded by the Proactive Recruitment in Introductory Science and Mathematics through the National Science Foundation. The grant, one of four given to universities nationwide, will create the Mathematics in Life Sciences Scholarship Program.

"A key element of the program is to create a learning community," said George Smith, professor of biological science and part of the team of investigators that applied for the grant.

The MLS program, organized by a dozen MU faculty members, will give incoming freshmen interested in math and life sciences financial aid, a weekly seminar and research internships, said Frank Schmidt, a biochemistry professor and another co-principal investigator.

"People have been talking about the interaction of biology and math for years," Schmidt said. "I think everyone agrees this is a big need."

The grant will provide funding for five years and primarily focus on easing students' financial burdens throughout their undergraduate education, said Jeni Hart, assistant professor in educational leadership and policy analysis. Hart will monitor the program's overall progress.

Committee members, led by principal investigator and math professor Dix Pettey, come from the fields of mathematics, biological sciences, chemistry, biochemistry, education and English.

"Faculty between different disciplines will actually be talking to each other," said Rainer Glaser, a co-principal investigator and chemistry professor. "I know it sounds trivial, but it does not happen anymore as much as it should."

E-mail recruitment for students has been under way since late July and continues through Aug. 15, Hart said.

"The overall goal of NSF is to recruit students who would not normally consider this type of education," Smith said.

This fall, the 20 freshmen who make the cut will participate in weekly, one-hour seminars worth one credit. The seminars will be in three modules: biology, chemistry and mathematics. A fourth module, in English, will be added in the spring, Glaser said.

"We are focusing on getting people to broaden their horizons," he said.

The program was designed to begin in the fall of 2010, but the committee was told it had to start a year earlier. Next year, selected freshmen will be organized into a freshmen interest group; the original students will take a second year of seminars, Schmidt said.

Smith said the MLS faculty will continue to interact with the students informally after their sophomore year. 

"We will provide support when needed," Hart said.

MU was one of 62 applicants for the grant. Two of the other recipients are the University of California-Irvine and Northeastern University. The last school has yet to be announced, said Henry Warchall, the program director in applied mathematics of the NSF.

An annual report of the program's progress will be submitted to the NSF based on quantitative and qualitative research, and adjustments to the program will be made where necessary, Hart said.

"We will have a benchmark to make sure we are making a difference in interdisciplinary work," Hart said.

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