During her first winter on the faculty of the University of Minnesota (UMN) in 1997, Claudia Neuhauser taught a 10-week calculus course that she hated. The textbook was dry. The problem sets were culled from engineering, unsuitable to motivate biology majors. And the students? "Bored," Neuhauser recalled.
A year later, Neuhauser taught calculus again—but this time, she did it her way. Unable to find a calculus text rich in biology examples, she proceeded to write her own—Calculus for Biology and Medicine—first published in 2000 and now in its second edition. She also wove current ecology and biology information into her lectures. The difference, she said, was "huge." To Neuhauser's delight, the students asked for more math courses.
Now Neuhauser, head of the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at UMN, can fulfill those requests. With HHMI professor support, she plans to build a statistics course around biological problems, add mathematical lessons to the freshman biology laboratory course, and help other faculty incorporate math into their teaching.
"Today, most undergraduate biology majors take quite a bit of basic quantitative coursework early on, but then they never see it again," Neuhauser explained. "A few years later, when they're graduate students, they encounter the new world of biology, full of massive amounts of data and analysis—and they're not prepared. We've got to change that."
She emphasizes the need to train faculty in quantitative techniques and teaching. She envisions adding mathematically-themed guest lectures to classes, possibly holding teaching workshops for faculty, as well as working with faculty one-on-one. She calls this a "logical step" in incorporating quantitative techniques across the curriculum. "For several years, my goal has been to develop at least two solid years of undergraduate quantitative training for our biology majors," Neuhauser said. "Now we can do so much more."
Neuhauser already has received recognition for her ability to inspire students. At UMN, she has won the Horace T. Morse—University of Minnesota Alumni Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education for teaching excellence and national leadership in educational innovation, particularly in mathematical biology. She also won the UMN College of Biological Sciences Dagley-Kirkwood Award for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education and the best director of graduate students award.
In her own research, Neuhauser has grown increasingly intrigued by the mathematics that governs ecological communities. Her interest in the spatial dynamics of ecological communities has drawn her deeply into the fields of ecology and evolution. "Most ecological models of communities do not take into account that individuals interact with each other in a spatial environment," she explained. "I investigate how space affects community dynamics."