Unique math and biology training program propels CBS alumni careers

04/10/14

In 2005, Evolution and Ecology Professor Rick Grosberg spearheaded a training program that prepared undergraduates to conduct research at the interface of math and biology. The Collaborative Learning at the Interface of Mathematics and Biology (CLIMB) program ran for five years with funding from NSF, and the students conducted extremely innovative research projects.

CLIMB students have since continued on their educational paths and are doing wonderful things for state agencies, in medical school, and in graduate school. We asked them to get back in touch to share where they are now and how CLIMB prepared them for their paths. Here are their stories:

Matthew Holden

Matthew Holden

Matthew Holden

UC Davis 2008, Highest Honors & Departmental Citation in Applied Mathematics, minor in Evolution, Ecology, & Biodiversity, 2008 University Medalist; 2008 NSF Graduate Research Fellow

I am (hopefully) nearing the end of my PhD program at Cornell in applied math. If it weren't for CLIMB I really doubt I would have pursued a graduate degree. While I knew I wanted to teach, I never really knew what researchers did, and certainly never thought of it as a possible career path. Today I do research at the interface of math, ecology, and economics.

The most challenging aspect of CLIMB was coming up with our own research question. This was a highly valuable experience. To this day, it is still the most difficult part of my research process. Getting experience with the frustrations, terror, and anxiety, but also exhilaration, and pure joy that comes with starting from scratch with our own ideas under the guidance of a highly supportive team of faculty and peers was invaluable.

In one of my current research projects I use an online interactive game in order to compare how well humans manage biological populations using only their intuition, versus robots managing the population via output from mathematical models. I often wonder "How much is my model really helping a resource manager in nature?" This project will be a first attempt at answering this question. When does human intuition break down and how much can perfect, and more importantly, imperfect mathematical models improve management decisions in these cases?

Tania González

Tania González

Tania González

UC Davis 2010, Biochemistry and Molecular Biolog

I am currently a 4th year PhD student in Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley.

In Ming Hammond's lab, I am studying gene regulation by alternative splicing in plants. This is a common method of gene regulation in nature, but not yet in labs. I am showing that it is useful to study plant immune responses when other forms of artificial gene regulation fail.

I knew I wanted to pursue research even before arriving at UC Davis as an undergraduate, but I had not yet decided to pursue graduate school. CLIMB helped me succeed by training me to design experiments, critically analyze data, and write programs to run mathematical models of biological systems. Usually, undergraduate researchers work on pre-existing projects, but CLIMB required us to design a project from scratch and to defend it against criticism. We had to read a lot of papers and adjust our proposal many times. It was a difficult process, but proposing a new research project is something that scientists-in-training need to learn how to do. It was during CLIMB that I decided to apply to graduate school.

Thanks to my training from CLIMB and my other undergraduate research mentors (Professors Anne Britt and Judy Callis), I was a very strong candidate and was accepted into my top choice school with a fellowship. Now, I am continuing the mentoring cycle by training undergraduates myself.

Miran Park

Miran Park

Miran Park

UC Davis 2010, Biophysics

After graduating from UC Davis with a B.S. in Biophysics, which I designed as an individual major, I went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Biology at UCLA. My current research involves modeling the evolution and emergence of infectious diseases using computational and mathematical theory and simulation.

The CLIMB program was hugely influential on the work I chose to pursue, and was an important stepping stone into the world of mathematical and computational biology. Without CLIMB I would not have discovered the broad and vast scope of ecological and evolutionary theory, which eventually lead me into the world of disease modeling and scientific research.

Nicholas Knoblauch

Nicholas Knoblauch

Nicholas Knoblauch

UC Davis 2011, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Since graduating in 2011 I've worked as the senior research assistant at a computational pathology/cancer genomics lab run by Andrew Beck at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center, one of the Harvard Medical School teaching hospitals.

The lab's efforts are pretty evenly split between developing and applying novel computational and statistical methods and performing traditional wet-lab experiments. In my time at the Beck Lab, I've co-authored five publications in the field of cancer genomics/computational pathology and given a plenary presentation at a cancer genomics scientific symposium. This fall I will start a PhD in Genetics, Genomics and Systems Biology at the University of Chicago.

The ability I developed during CLIMB to conceptualize a biological phenomenon within a quantitative framework has proven instrumental in shaping both my research and professional trajectory.

Ivy Gardner

Ivy Gardner

Ivy Gardner

UC Davis 2011, Departmental Citation in Biological Sciences

I am finishing up my second year of medical school at Boston University, where I will be hitting the wards in June! I was a co-chair for the BU School of Medicine LGBT group, where I worked on improving LGBT medical education in our curriculum and organized several programs to educate my peers about the health care needs of LGBT folks. Last summer, I investigated the effects of testosterone on the endometrium in transgender men and wrote a literature review on transgender medicine that was published in Current Opinion in Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Obesity. I am currently working on a survey-based research project looking into the health impacts of chest binding in transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. Additionally, I am co-authoring a chapter for a LGBT medical education textbook.

CLIMB taught me how to ask questions and the many ways of answering these questions, which has greatly shaped the way I do research. CLIMB helped show me that research is about asking questions that haven't been answered before. For example, the chest binding project was formed because I wanted to know about the health impacts of the practice in transgender and gender non-conforming people, so I collaborated with a group of my peers with different experiences and knowledge bases, and the project was formed.

Daniela Palmer

Daniela Palmer

Daniela Palmer

UC Davis 2012, Applied Mathematics

My experience in CLIMB was pivotal in my educational transition from mathematics to evolutionary biology. CLIMB not only exposed me to a diversity of subdisciplines within the realm of quantitative biology, but it also helped me develop many of the skills essential to a research career. Perhaps the most unique and valuable element of CLIMB was independently developing an original, interdisciplinary research project in collaboration with my cohort. As a research scientist, identifying and marketing these original ideas is central to one's success, and my experience in CLIMB certainly fostered those skills.

Through CLIMB I bridged from a math background to an evolutionary biology focus and I am now in my second year as a PhD student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago. My work focuses on the evolutionary genetics of wing pattern mimicry in swallowtail butterflies. Thanks to CLIMB, I feel confident in taking an interdisciplinary approach to my research, making it comprehensive and innovative.

Jason Harville

Jason Harville

Jason Harville

UC Davis 2011, Applied Mathematics

I've been working for the California Energy Commission since Dec 2012. My CLIMB experience has been invaluable, and it's really hard to overstate it. With the exception of my actual degree, it is easily the most valuable experience I had in the seven years it took me to get a B.S. Even though my degree was Applied Mathematics, in reality that translated to learning techniques that could be applied, rather than actually applying them to something. CLIMB filled that gap. It gave me hands-on experience and exposure to real applications, real scientists and real scientific work. The experience of CLIMB gave me an opportunity to see that academic knowledge in action and something tangible to show potential employers.

I started at the CEC as an Energy Analyst, which is the basic entry-level position, working in the Energy Research and Development Division. The ERDD administers and manages a huge amount of state-funded energy research. That means designing solicitations for organizations to apply for state funding, selecting winners from the pool of applicants, and then managing those contracts to ensure that the research is conducted properly and the state money is used effectively. When I left the ERDD I was managing three projects totaling more than $3 million in state funds, and was working on creating a new agreement between the ERDD, the Department of Defense, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for an electric vehicle-to-grid pilot demonstration.

I now am working as an Electric Generation System Specialist with the Distributed Generation Working Group. This is easily the most technical area of the CEC, and CLIMB got me this promotion. In the first half of my interview, we talked about the particulars of my position and the second half was all about modeling and analysis. They wanted to know about my knowledge and experience with modeling, my views on the strengths and limitations of modeling, how I felt models and model results should be presented to a lay audience and so on. They wanted to talk about modeling. They wanted to talk about how/why we use them, and especially how we communicate them. I was able to do so, and I beat out people with a lot more experience because of it. I'm really so grateful to have taken part in the program.