University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Claudia Neuhauser is Director of the University of Minnesota’s Informatics Institute, Director of Graduate Studies of the Bioinformatics and Computational Biology Graduate Program.
Biology Through Numbers
My first foray into mathematics for biologists occurred more than 15 years ago when I taught a 10-week calculus course in 1997 as a new faculty member at the University of Minnesota. I was not impressed with the drill approach to integration and saw little relevance for most of my students—and neither did my students, who disliked the courses as much as I did. This experience prompted me to write a calculus book for biology students, which was published in 2000. It is now in its third edition. As my research moved me more and more into biology, I began to understand the differences in methodologies between mathematics and the sciences. This deeply affected my approaches to teaching. The University of Minnesota allowed me to take a very experimental approach to educating biology students in the quantitative fields.
After I moved to the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in 2001 and became department head a couple of years later, I developed a mathematical modeling course that moved from the traditional lecture-lab model to an active learning environment where I spent less and less time lecturing, but instead had my students explore the concepts through Excel spreadsheet simulations. The HHMI Professorship that I was awarded in 2006 allowed me to expand my educational activities.
With support from BioQUEST, I offered workshops around the country to community college and 4-year college faculty on integrating quantitative approaches into undergraduate biology courses. My workshops typically include Excel spreadsheet activities where students get small data sets to explore. Gapminder became a frequently integrated tool. However, most importantly, I learned to introduce mathematical concepts through simulations and visualization instead of relying on mathematical notation. Participants became comfortable with concepts faster and were able to explore data more deeply.
An unexpected opportunity arose in 2008 when I was offered the position of vice chancellor on the newly established Rochester campus of the University of Minnesota. I was able to shape an undergraduate program in the health sciences where statistics was the first quantitative course students were required to take. The course materials that I had developed previously for statistics were a good start to get the statistics course off the ground, and to ensure that students would “experience randomness” through simulations and would be exposed to authentic data sets. Five years later, we graduated the first class, and I left the Rochester campus to return to the Twin Cities campus where I am now in charge of designing and building an Informatics Institute.
Before moving to the Rochester campus, my research was almost entirely focused on environmental and agricultural applications. This also meant that most of my educational materials came from those fields. This changed when I moved to the Rochester campus and found myself next door to Mayo Clinic. As my research changed to biomedical problems, I began to focus my educational activities increasingly on the education of students interested in health.
During the five years on the Rochester campus, I was also the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) of a newly started Biomedical Informatics and Computational Biology graduate program that was designed to be attractive to students who already work full time in the health care sector. We were able to build a graduate faculty with members from academia and industry, which allows us to leverage the strengths in the state of Minnesota in the area of informatics. Back in the Twin Cities, I continue to be DGS of that program. We continue to build relationships with the private sector in Minnesota to expand research opportunities for our graduate students and to facilitate the education of Minnesota’s workforce in bioinformatics. Program partners include Mayo Clinic, IBM, the National Marrow Donor Program, and Cray, Inc.
My current educational efforts are focused on bringing informatics approaches of big data into undergraduate and graduate education across disciplines, and to find ways to increase “informatics literacy.” There is a great need to educate students, those already in the workforce, and the public in how big data is changing our way to make decisions.