Population biology of infectious diseases REU site: Math majors at the bench
The NSF encourages undergraduate research by funding “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” (REU) sites. The Population Biology of Infectious Diseases REU Site (PopBio) at the University of Georgia provides research experiences that blend quantitative and empirical skills to address questions regarding the emergence, spread and evolution of infectious diseases. This interdisciplinary REU site draws mentors from 12 different departments and undergraduate participants in computational or biological disciplines. Undergraduates are recruited through the Peach State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, campus visits to supporting institutions and traditional media advertising. During the 9-week program undergraduates participate in quantitative workshops, graduate student led paper discussions, faculty dinner discussions, breakout sessions and visit the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. These breakout sessions pair mentors and mentees with an empirically focused project with mentors and mentees with a quantitative project and are meant to expose the participants to alternative research approaches while developing effective methods for scientific communication. The program culminates with a joint poster symposium with four other REU sites hosted at UGA. Unlike many other sites, the PopBio site is attempting to quantifying the program’s effectiveness in reaching our original goals of engaging undergraduates in interdisciplinary research and improving quantitative skills.
Over the last 3 summers, 36 undergraduates have completed our program. Undergraduate participants were predominantly female (26/36), 22 of the students self-identify as belonging to an underrepresented group, and roughly a third were from a quantitative discipline (14/36). This program has led to 15 conference presentations by the undergraduate participants and a publication with an undergraduate lead author. A third of participants (5/13) who have earned their bachelor's degree have entered into graduate programs. The program’s impact on participants’ attitudes towards quantitative methods in biology was assessed using pre and post program surveys. The engagement level of PopBio participants in interdisciplinary research was assessed by constructing interaction networks, which determines if there are any noteworthy interactions within PopBio cohorts and mentors that developed during the program. Lastly, posters from all of the REU sites hosted at the university were assessed for the participant’s ability to correctly apply quantitative methods and reasoning in research. Assessment was based on a rubric adapted from the Snowbird Charette. Reassuringly, the PopBio Site participants scored significantly higher than most of the other programs.