Darwin and Wallace's theory of evolution revealed that the living things have a purpose: their structure, function, and behavior are integrated to leave as many progeny as possible. For much of the 20th century, this difference, and the astonishing diversity of form and function, tended to separate biology from the other natural sciences: biology's complexity made it unappealing to many mathematicians, physicists, and chemists, and the "assume a spherical cow" flavor of theorists' simplifying assumptions made biologists skeptical about how useful theory was for understanding biology. Two advances have pushed biologists towards theorists and computer scientists: the need to test our understanding of biological processes by making explicit, mathematical models and the need to convert large datasets into information and, ultimately, knowledge.
We will teach students that the answer to 'How will you solve this problem?' is 'By any means necessary!' Our goal is to teach them how to find interesting problems, the means to solve them, and above all, the knowledge and courage to invent the new methods that make previously insoluble problems soluble. Coupling concepts and methods to problems that excite students and making them use these tools in their own research will embed the concepts in their working memory.
We will teach through iterated cycles of experiment and analysis, making use of experimental computation to simulate a system of interacting entities and explore the effect of parameter variation on the system's properties. Our goal is to complement the formal derivation of theorems, show the productive interplay between theory, simulation, and experiment, and show that computer systems and programs, like biological objects, have purposes. Mastering a restricted syntax to write algorithms will help students think about how biological systems use the restricted syntax of chemistry and genetics to accomplish tasks. Concepts like modularity, exploration with selection, error detection and correction, and recycling previous inventions are important in the function and evolution of both organisms and code. Six faculty will teach the course, working as three pairs of one life scientist and one physical scientist.
The students will use their knowledge to conduct original scientific research. To ensure that all the students start with abilities in laboratory experiments and computer simulations, we will have two, two week-long boot camps, one in computation and one in experimentation. After the boot camps, students will perform original research in project laboratories. The project labs will be based on the research of and run by the Bauer Fellows, independent scientists who spend five years at Harvard after their PhDs and run small research groups.
We will measure the success of our program in three ways: the extent to which they continue in and succeed at original research during their sophomore, junior, and senior years, the knowledge that students retain when they leave Harvard, three years after completing the IS curriculum, and the extent to which they pursue careers that depend on scientific training.