By Katie Neitz

This summer, the biology department will move to the new Rockwell Integrated Sciences Center, where cutting-edge technology, innovative lab space, and opportunities to build interdisciplinary collaborations will enhance the teaching and learning environment for biology faculty and students. The dynamic new space is just one way the Live Connected, Lead Change Campaign has benefited the department. Another opportunity came in the form of an $800,000 grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in 2012, which funded several important initiatives. The grant enabled research opportunities (see below) and funded two new tenure-track faculty positions. Eric Ho, assistant professor of biology, joined the department in 2013 as its first computational biologist. Ho uses DNA sequencing to uncover more effective treatments for cancer and Lyme disease. Daniel Strömbom, who initially taught in the department as a postdoctoral instructor, is returning in the fall as the second tenure-track computational biologist.

The integration of mathematics into biology is a growing trend. “Biology as a field is getting much more mathematical,” says department head Laurie Caslake (above left). “There is a demand for people who are trained in both fields—people who can collect and analyze and draw conclusions from big sets of data. Having faculty with that expertise is essential for training students for careers in biostatistics and bioinformatics.”

Expanded Research Opportunities

The department used HHMI funding to launch Science Horizons, which gives first-year students research experience and the opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors. Noelle Kosarek ’16 participated in 2013 under the guidance of Professor Bob Kurt. She is working toward obtaining a Ph.D. at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, where she is studying the genomics and epidemiology of a rare autoimmune disease. “The Science Horizons program afforded me the unique opportunity to engage in on-campus research during my first year of college, which propelled me toward pursuing an honors thesis project in biomedical informatics,” Kosarek says. “My early research provided a space for me to expand my scientific creativity. The Science Horizons program and biology department fostered my academic interests and encouraged me to pursue my graduate studies.”

Again through HHMI, the biology department has offered SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance-Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science), a two-semester research course providing first-year students with both lab and computational science experience. Students find their own bacteriophages and then annotate the genome of the sequenced phage. While the department has two bioinformatics courses taught by Ho, they are not at the introductory or 100 level. This is the gap that SEA-PHAGES is designed to fill.