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Quantitative and Computational Life Sciences

The trend in science is to involve teams of scientists in interdisciplinary fields that create solutions to problems that affect the peoples’ lives and welfare. Many such problems may be addressed through connecting mathematics to biology, medicine, computing, and other sciences. Thus, building bridges between areas of expertise in the scientific community is recognized as an essential direction for current and future scientific efforts.

Current programs already provide a strong traditional foundation focused in mathematics or computation or each science separately. But more recent initiatives have provided Claremont students with the kind of hands-on use of mathematics and computation as laboratory tools in a team-based context not traditionally found in the classroom. Claremont aims to develop future scientific leaders in new interdisciplinary fields.

The idea for a Center for Quantitative Life Sciences (QLS) emerged from discussions among the Mathematics and Biology faculty at Harvey Mudd College. In 2000, Michael Moody, then chair of the HMC Mathematics Department, wrote a proposal to the W. M. Keck Foundation seeking funding to establish such a Center. In June 2001, the Foundation awarded a five-year grant of $500,000 to Harvey Mudd College to establish the Center for Quantitative Life Sciences (QLS), with Michael Moody as the first QLS Director. In the Fall of 2002, a change of Directorship took place, and HMC Professors DePillis (Math) and Adolph (Biology) became co-Directors of the QLS Center. The first QLS visitor came in 2002, and sponsored activities began in 2003. In March 2005, the Keck Foundation granted a one-year extension to June 30, 2006. The QLS Center’s support so far has produced 15 research papers by faculty and students (click here) and even more talks and poster sessions. Four Post-docs have been supported by the QLS Center so far, each of whom moved into tenure-track positions directly after their HMC experience (click here). QLS activities resulted in contributions of 21 faculty members, and 26 HMC student and faculty research projects. HMC faculty from Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics received support for student-faculty projects from the QLS Center so far. Almost no funds from these grants were used for administrative support. Had the funding been structured differently, the managing of the QLS Center’s activities would have been more effective in forming interdisciplinary teams and selecting research projects. Under the aegis of the CCMS the administrative support of the Quantitative Life Sciences area of concentration will be vastly improved. A proposal from the CCMS has already gone out to the NSF to support this activity and we are hopeful for a positive outcome in November of this year.

One result of QLS activities was a successful collaborative research grant to investigate combination therapies in tumor-immune modeling. In August 2004, lead PI Lisette DePillis and co-PIs Weiqing Gu (Mathematics, HMC) and Renee Fister (Mathematics, Murray State University, Kentucky) were awarded a 3-year NSF grant of $328,283 headquartered at HMC for “Mathematical Modeling of Chemotherapy, Immunotherapy, and Vaccine therapy of Cancer”. This collaboration provided summer experiences to over a dozen undergraduates, produced 10 research publications and resulted in over 20 conference presentations. In 2007, this research team was chosen to be the MAA representative at the C-NSF (Coalition for National Science Funding) Exhibition in Washington, D.C., where its research work in tumor modeling was presented to members of Congress.

Another outcome of QLS-supported activities was a successful interdisciplinary student-research grant. In October 2006, lead PI John Milton (Joint Sciences, Computational Neuroscience), co-PI Lisette DePillis, and three other co-PIs from CMC and the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) were awarded NSF funding of $429,878 for “Research Experiences at the Biological-Mathematical Interface (REBMI)”. This five year project, which involves students and faculty from all the undergraduate Colleges in Claremont as well as KGI, is a significant step forward toward building mathematical biology undergraduate research opportunities at the Claremont Colleges. One goal of this area of concentration is to coordinate the wealth of interdisciplinary efforts that are already taking place in the Consortium, and to maximize resources by avoiding the current duplication of efforts that can arise in the absence of coordination. CCMS will provide further cross-disciplinary curricular development and research collaborations by infusing mathematics and computation into the sciences. This will require building cooperative bridges between faculty in mathematics, computation, biology, physics and other sciences.

In December 2006, Professor John Milton (Joint Sciences, Computational Neuroscience) received a $319,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support research on how the brain controls expert motor skills associated with stick balancing. Stick balancing is essentially the same problem as trying to maintain balance while walking. Hence, this research addresses the question “How does one develop expertise in the performance of a difficult motor skill?”

Other goals of this area of concentration include

Encouraging the development of research and educational experiences that blend hands-on laboratory activities with mathematical modeling, time-series analysis and prediction techniques.
Developing workshops to train faculty across disciplines, biologists teaching mathematicians, and mathematicians teaching biologists, etc. This will put faculty in a position to mentor students they train in cross-disciplines.
Creating forums in which faculty from all scientific disciplines, including mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science, and physics, can meet and discuss new and ongoing research ideas, and forge and strengthen collaborations. Many of these forums can be realized in the form of seminars and colloquia. Outside experts will be brought in to interact with faculty and students, invigorating the research environment.
Strengthening ties to local research resources who are all active in the computational life sciences. These include Steve Adolph (HMC, Biology), Elliot Bush (HMC, Biology), Ali Nadim (CGU, Math/KGI), Alpan Raval (CGU, Math/KGI), James Sterling (KGI), John Angus (CGU, Math), John Milton (Joint Sciences, Computational Neuroscience), Diane Thompson (Joint Sciences, Biology), Ami Radunskaya (Pomona Math), Jim Higdon (Joint Sciences, Physics), Adam Landsberg (Joint Sciences, Physics).
Professor Ellis Cumberbatch (CGU, math) plans a problems workshop and study group in the biological and life sciences in the Fall semester, 2008

Professor DePillis (HMC, Math) and Professor Ami Radunskaya (Pomona, Math), and Professor John Milton (Joint Sciences, Computational Neuroscience) have all been actively involved in cross disciplinary research for a number of years and have developed cross disciplinary courses at the Claremont Colleges. Professor DePillis conceived and carried out the construction of the first Beowulf Cluster (supercomputer) ever made available for undergraduate use in the USA, and more recently acquired for the HMC campus a multi-processor high-performance computing cluster that has been used to further undergraduate research. As a result of theses activities Professor DePillis has been instrumental in developing two joint majors: Mathematics-Computer Science, and Mathematics-Biology.

It is timely to consider expanding QCLS interdisciplinary research and teaching activities within a broader global context. Dr. Seema Nanda, a former QLS visitor, has been appointed a Professor at the prestigious Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bangalore, India. Within the TIFR Centre for Applicable Mathematics, Dr Nanda has led initiatives to build up programs both in Mathematical Biology and in Industrial Mathematics. Dr Nanda just this year developed a successful workshop and training session in Mathematical Biology and Medicine which included participants from the mathematical and biological sciences as well as clinicians and practioners. Bangalore is a high-tech center of research and industry, including branch offices of Fair-Isaac, Bell Labs, IBM, Microsoft Research in addition to the Indian Space Research Organization, and the Institute for Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology. Hence, the potential is there to secure industry sponsorship of interdisciplinary international projects. Dr Nanda has expressed a keen interest in developing an international cooperation between TIFR and Claremont. CGU’s School of Information Systems and Technology will offer a Master’s degree program in Bangalore beginning in the year 2009.

Other global research ties have been established: In December 2007, Professor Radunskaya (Math, Pomona), organized a workshop on the Applications of Mathematics to Medicine at the School of Pharmacy at Otago, New Zealand. The workshop exposed a group of mathematicians to four problems presented by medical professionals. Partially funded by the NSF, this workshop included four Claremont undergraduates, as well as Professors DePillis and Radunskaya. Results of the workshop will be published soon and collaborations are ongoing. Others who have an interest in cooperative endeavors with Claremont include Dr. Dan Mallet (Faculty Coordinator, Queensland University of Technology, Australia), Dr. Lesley Ward (Mathematician and Senior Lecturer, University of South Australia).