Guided by postdoctoral mentors, Atlanta-area undergrads discovered that math + biology = a great summer research experience.
Aug 22, 2016 | Atlanta, GA
A poster session in the College of Sciences’ School of Mathematics last month showcased some of the different ways that the mathematical and biological sciences interact. The lively event culminated an eight-week summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program associated with the School’s Interdisciplinary Mathematics Preparation and Career Training (IMPACT) program, a Georgia Tech-based postdoctoral-training program for mathematicians.
Funded by a National Science Foundation workforce grant, IMPACT is led by School of Mathematics Professor Christine Heitsch. “Our primary goal is to address the critical transition from graduate student to tenure-track faculty in terms of research expectations, teaching responsibilities, and professional commitments,” she said. IMPACT also includes an REU component, she added, because “one way that faculty expectations differ significantly from graduate school is in engaging students in research projects.”
For the REU participants, the summer program was an opportunity to gain valuable research experience and learn about mathematics not often covered in undergraduate courses.
And for the IMPACT postdoctoral fellows – Megan Bernstein, Torin Greenwood, and Heather C. Smith – it was a chance to practice the mentoring skills that are essential for a successful academic career.
In keeping with IMPACT’s interdisciplinary emphasis, the REU projects focused on the interface of discrete mathematics with molecular biology, particularly on the interaction of probabilistic and algebraic combinatorics with the folding of RNA molecules. Although the biological connections were new to all participants, Heitsch said, “everyone really rose to the challenge, and that made it a wonderful experience for all of us.”
The six undergraduates came from five Atlanta-area institutions and worked on four projects:
Ibrahim Apata, a junior from Morehouse College, examined a theoretical model of RNA folding using plane trees, a mathematical structure from the field of combinatorics.
Ida De Vierno, a junior from Georgia Tech, and Isabella Nang, a senior from Georgia State University, studied the connectivity of meanders, another combinatorial structure that can be viewed as pairs of RNA foldings.
Chelsea Huston, a senior from Spelman College, explored the charactertistics of random plane trees using samples from a Markov chain under certain ‘biological’ probability distributions and then compared the results with known RNA foldings.
Jason Kolbush, a senior from Georgia Tech, and Taylor Strickland, a junior from Agnes Scott College, built and trained a hidden Markov model to parse experimental data that can be used to improve predictions of RNA-folding patterns.
The experience was exciting and eye-opening for the IMPACT postdocs. The undergraduate students “showed an amazing amount of curiosity and creativity in approaching the problems,” Bernstein said.
For Greenwood, “the most exciting thing is watching the students themselves get excited about these projects. They come up with their own ideas of how to solve these open questions.”
The students “helped me see the project in a new light,” Smith said. “The approach that they took was a little bit different; they noticed patterns that I hadn't seen before.”
Despite their inexperience with the material, the students accomplished much during eight weeks. “I was very impressed,” said School of Mathematics Interim Chair Prasad V. Tetali. “Some of the research done this summer is substantial enough to lead to interesting publications.”
Summer research programs such as Georgia Tech’s IMPACT REU are valuable for undergraduates, said Duane Cooper, an associate professor and the chair of the Department of Mathematics at Morehouse College, as well as a Georgia Tech alumnus. They enable students “to appreciate the foundation we try to instill in them and to see the many ways that the mathematics they’re learning can be useful,” he explained.
Organizers hope the IMPACT REU will spark future collaborations between Georgia Tech and surrounding schools, especially those with students who are underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) communities.
“One of the most impactful byproducts of the program is setting up contacts with Morehouse, Spelman, and Agnes Scott,” Tetali said.
“This exchange of research interest even at the faculty level is valuable,” Cooper said, adding that “it’s good for our students, our ‘Men of Morehouse’.”
At the 2016 IMPACT REU poster session were (from left to right) Prasad Tetali, Peter Ralli, Heather Smith, Isabella Nang, Ibrahim Apata, Ida De Vierno, Christine Heitsch, Anna Kirkpatrick, Torin Greenwood, Megan Bernstein, Jason Kolbush, Chelsea Huston, Taylor Strickland, and Thomas Prag. Photo courtesy of Heather Smith.
Student Assistant, College of Sciences