This new REU site is a partnership between the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and the Interdisciplinary Center for Applied Mathematics, both at Virginia Tech. The objective of the program is to provide a 10-week residential summer research experience for undergraduate students from around the U.S. including Puerto Rico, with the goal of increasing their desire and preparation to enter a Ph.D. program in mathematics or computational biology. The students are paired with mentors working on research projects focusing on mathematical models of biological networks, from the cellular to the organism and population scales. The two partner institutes provide a vibrant multi-disciplinary research environment, involving a broad range of the mathematical and life sciences. Special emphasis is placed on recruiting a diverse group of participants.
The goal of the project was to provide research experiences for undergraduate students in the area of modeling and simulation in systems biology. Through the experience of cutting edge scientific research, students obtain a broader view of the impact scientific research can have on our daily lives, and they learn about a variety of career opportunities. As a result, more students embark on advanced careers in the sciences and mathematics. As the 2009 report "A New Biology for the 21st Century: Ensuring the United States Leads the Coming Biology Revolution" by the National Research Council of the National Academies argues, biology can play a central role in solving some of the most challenging problems we face as a nation, but it needs additional support. In particular, as the report emphasizes, mathematical and computational tools for modeling and simulation are essential for many challenges. This NSF project was focused on the development and use of these tools in biology. Over the course of the 3-year duration of the project, 33 undergraduates from around the country spent 10 weeks in the summer at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute to conduct research with faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and Ph.D. students on a variety of topics. As an example, one team of 4 students worked with researchers at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine on constructing a computer model of how breast cells utilize and regulate iron. It is known that in breast cancer cells this regulation is changed significantly and is an important marker for disease outcome. The computer model can now be used to carry out simulations that help design better experiments for understanding the changes cells undergo as they become cancerous. Of the 33 students, 28 have now graduated and of these all but one have entered a graduate program related to the mathematical or biological sciences. Thus, the project has contributed significantly to the development of a mathematically skilled workforce.