For more than 60 years, undergraduate students at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton have been involved in biology research. Historically, they have worked within a single department, a practice that mirrored the way science used to be done—with experts from a single discipline teaming up to do experiments. Science has become more collaborative and multidisciplinary in the last decade, and SUNY at Binghamton has embraced that, too.
“Biology is incorporating more mathematics, engineering, physics, and computer science,” says Anna Tan-Wilson, SUNY distinguished teaching professor of biological sciences and HHMI program director. “In the real world, those boundaries are blurring.”
With the help of an HHMI grant, undergraduates at SUNY Binghamton will now have more opportunities to cross those disciplinary boundaries. The HHMI grant will jumpstart a new effort to pair majors in the life sciences with students in the physical sciences, mathematics, computer science, and engineering as they begin collaborative, interdisciplinary research projects focused on biological questions. The teams will begin in the summer and continue working together for the following academic year, along the way getting training in how to work effectively across disciplines. Graduate students will also be trained as mentors. “We want to work with them also because these Ph.D. students will be faculty members someday,” says Tan-Wilson.
To make sure that there are plenty of labs to welcome students, Tan-Wilson and her colleagues will host workshops where faculty can meet to propose collaborative projects that undergraduates can carry out.
Tan-Wilson says the university is also interested in understanding how students develop and progress. Krishnaswami Srihari, distinguished professor of systems science and industrial engineering at SUNY, will observe the students as they work and use data to model the social interactions of the interdisciplinary teams. They will use what they learn to determine what factors help interdisciplinary students grow into independent scholars and better match students to faculty mentors. “What are the conditions that make for success?” says Tan-Wilson. “Or if the students get disgruntled and frustrated, what are the conditions that lead to that?”