UNITY, Maine — Dr. Carrie Diaz Eaton of Unity College said this week she is thrilled that the National Science Foundation has shown its support of the new collaboration she is leading that aims to help connect the disciplines of biology and mathematics.
Last month, the foundation awarded a five-year, $2.9 million grant to Diaz Eaton and her collaborators from other colleges, universities and institutions to continue the work that they began thanks to a much smaller incubator grant from the National Science Foundation.
“The incubator was more like the presentation of an idea,” she said. “This grant is going to make this idea happen. … It’s very exciting. I think this is really going to change our ability to educate 21st century students.”
Diaz Eaton, the facilitator and leader of the new Quantitative Undergraduate Biology Education and Synthesis Consortium, said that the group seeks to solve some problems that have arisen in the emerging field that lies at the interface of mathematics and biology.
Other consortium members include educators from institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh, the College of William and Mary and Purdue University, and groups such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the National Association of Biology Teachers and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“My role is the consortium facilitator,” Diaz Eaton said. “I’m working with all these other organizations to get their support and to access their huge repository of educational material. There’s quite a lot out there already, but mathematicians don’t always know what biologists are doing, and vice versa.”
Thanks to the large grant, the collaborators will be able to build a framework for improving communication between the two fields and improving education for undergraduate students by doing several things. That includes supporting faculty that teach students by providing them with trained mentors and creating an online infrastructure that will provide information available to everyone about these fields. Diaz Eaton said that the incubator grant the group previously had received totaled $50,000 — a tiny sum compared to the new one.
“This is a very, very large grant,” she said. “I think it’s a great honor that they have faith in our vision. I’m just so excited in the doors that this will open.”
The grant will allow the consortium to work together to give educators better tools to teach.
“Right now as teachers, we were just Googling to find materials,” Diaz Eaton said. “We know there are better places out there. It’s about communicating across disciplinary boundaries. The key was to create a virtual community that people could go to and connect the worlds of math and biology.”
That’s crucial, she said, in part because advancements in technology have made it possible and affordable for scientists to gather all kinds of data — so much it can be overwhelming, unless they know what to do next.
“Right now, it’s so cheap to do something like track animals and get a bunch of data,” she said. “The problem is, once you get it, what do you do with it? We can sequence an entire genome really easily now. But then what?”