Ever heard of a Division of Biological Sciences being housed within a Mathematics Department? Strange as it may seem, until recently, this was the status quo at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), an Institute Partner of the MBI. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a great arrangement that allowed mathematics and biology at NJIT to grow in an interdisciplinary manner, and it created a truly unique Mathematical Biology group. Visit NJIT today and you will find an active community of mathematicians and biologists who work collaboratively on research problems, who provide research training opportunities at the undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral levels and who have developed undergraduate and graduate curricula to train scientists for the 21st century.
Over the past ten years, the Department of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) at NJIT has developed a strong faculty in the area of Mathematical Biology. This group consists of faculty members trained as applied mathematicians as well as other faculty with primary training in quantitative biology. One of the main streams of research within the group is in mathematical and computational neuroscience, with seven faculty members currently working in this area. Of these faculty, three run wet labs where experiments are performed on central pattern generating networks such as those found in the crustacean stomatogastric ganglion. Current research problems focus on identifying the effect of neuromodulation on rhythmic activity, elucidating the mechanisms and effects of short-term synaptic plasticity; deriving minimal models for mixed mode oscillations, and more generally, developing new mathematical methods to study problems within neuroscience. A second area of concentration is in computational and mathematical ecology with a focus on community and ecosystem ecology. Ongoing research includes: development of automated species identification systems, focusing on coral reef fish and spiders; development of bioinformatic methods to curate and integrate disparate ecological datasets; use of computational geometric methods to quantify biodiversity; and quantifying extinction threat with metapopulation models. In the past five years, the research and training programs of the Mathematical Biology faculty have been supported by over $3 million from external agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).
The interactions between mathematicians and biologists within DMS facilitated the growth of educational and training programs that lie at the interface of the two disciplines. An undergraduate degree option in Mathematical Biology and a double major between mathematics and biology were created. A quantitative B.S. in Biology was developed that requires 20 credits of mathematics. These degree programs mesh very nicely with the NSF funded Undergraduate Biology and Mathematics (UBM) program that has existed at NJIT since 2004. The program has trained about 25 students with participants engaged in year-long experimental and modeling research projects. All UBM trainees, who have graduated, have moved on to graduate or medical programs. At the graduate level, HHMI recently funded NJIT, in cooperation with Rutgers-Newark and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, to create a Quantitative Neuroscience Ph.D. program. This program complements the Mathematical Sciences Ph.D. program in DMS that has graduated eight students in Mathematical Biology since 2002 and the recently developed Computational Biology M.S. program. DMS hosts the annual conference on Frontiers in Applied and Computational Mathematics. FACM 09 will focus on Mathematical Biology and will be held on June 1-2, 2009. Those interested in participating can get more details at http://www.math.njit.edu.
As evidenced by the rapid growth of Mathematical Biology at NJIT, having a Division of Biological Sciences within Mathematical Sciences can ease the development of interdisciplinary programs. At NJIT, we have, however, become the victim of our own success. Biology has thrived in DMS, resulting in the creation in 2007 of an independent Department of Biological Sciences. The good news is that because this department grew out of DMS, it is stocked with faculty who are quantitative and modeling oriented, thereby promising many more years of fruitful collaboration between biologists and mathematicians. In closing, the way in which mathematical biology grew at NJIT can serve as a model for ways to build sustainable and stable programs. It was initiated through the hiring of a group of faculty who shared common research interests and who were given the freedom to create a surrounding educational infrastructure. There are many reasons to believe that this basic idea can be duplicated at campuses across the country.