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$2.9 Million to Train Mathematical Biologists

January 15, 2003 — The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a five-year, $2.9 million grant to the University of Utah to support about 25 doctoral students while they train to become experts in the use of mathematics to address biological problems.

“The interaction between mathematics and biology is an important trend of science in the future,” said James Keener, a mathematics professor and principal investigator for the grant.

“Trying to bring mathematics and biology together is a challenging problem because the two cultures are enormously different,” he said. “It’s quite a challenge to get students to learn both subjects. But we feel it’s an important one because the complexity of biology can only be understood as quantitative theories are developed to help us. This can be done only by people who are exposed in a serious way to both mathematics and biology.”

The award to the University of Utah is among 17 cross-disciplinary training grants being announced by NSF this week under a program named IGERT, for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training. Four more IGERT grants will be announced soon for the current fiscal year. Ranging from $2.7 million to $2.9 million each, the grants aim to train Ph.D. candidates “in a highly collaborative research environment that allows broad experiences for students that transcend traditional academic and research boundaries,” the NSF said.

Keener said he was “ecstatic” to learn of the grant. Along with Keener, other Utah faculty members leading the NSF-funded mathematical biology training program are John Sperry, a professor of biology; Aaron Fogelson and Paul Bressloff, both professors of mathematics; and Frederick Adler, an associate professor of biology and mathematics.

The funding should pay for the education of about 25 Ph.D. students for about three years each. Students accepted into the program will receive an annual stipend of $21,500, plus paid tuition for graduate school, placing the total value for each student at roughly $30,000 per year, Keener said.

Students who wish to apply for the doctoral program in mathematical biology should go through the standard procedure to apply for graduate school in mathematics but also must submit a letter of interest in the mathematical biology program. More information is at:

“We expect students will come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but with strong undergraduate mathematics training,” Keener said.

Students who obtain Ph.D.s in mathematics through the program can expect to work either in academia or in industry.

“There are a lot of pharmaceutical companies trying to develop mathematical simulation programs to help understand how drugs work,” said Keener. Other companies develop mathematical simulations of how the body or organs work – simulations that also are used by drug companies. Mathematical biologists also are needed as human genetics moves from simply identifying genes to learning how genes and proteins function, Keener added.

Since the IGERT program began five years ago, the National Science Foundation has awarded 100 such grants to 65 institutions.