Workshop on Quantitative Methods in Biology Draws Diverse Students from Across the Country

The first week of the new year brought smatterings of undergraduates returning to the MIT campus after the holidays – and 54 new faces were among them. These students traveled from across the country to attend the annual Quantitative Methods Workshop, a weeklong event with lectures and classes for undergraduates from partner institutions, including Howard University, Hunter College, and the University of Puerto Rico.

The workshop, sponsored by the Department of Biology and the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines, focused on how computer programming can apply to problems in biology and neuroscience. Amy Keating, Co-Director of MIT’s graduate program in biology, has taught at the workshop for the past five years. “The workshop gives students with a broad range of backgrounds exposure to the exciting ways in which quantitative tools are applied in modern biological research,” Keating said. “Some math and computer science students don’t realize that they can make important contributions to biology research until [this workshop].”
 
Mandana Sassanfar, a Lecturer in the Biology Department, organizes the workshop. “We want to give them a spark, provide them the tools and the basic knowledge,” Sassanfar said. “When they go back to school, they can try to do something with what they have learned.”
 
An Intense and Rewarding Experience
Each morning during the workshop, students attended a lecture on a range of relevant topics, such as modeling activated neurons, machine learning in neuroscience, and gene-sequencing technology.
 
“We take this deep dive into the problems of their field,” explained Talmo Pereira, a bioinformatics and computational biology major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Then in the afternoons, we learn some computational method for how to approach those problems. And so it really does reinforce this notion that, no matter what field of biology you’re in, you need these computational methods in order to solve these very basic and essentially biological problems.” This was Pereira’s second year at the workshop: Like many of the students there, he first found out about it when he attended the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP; see page 13 for details), working in a research laboratory on campus. This year, he helped out during the week as a teaching assistant.
 
Throughout the workshop, students completed assignments through an online course module on the MITx website, where they could submit work and check their code. MITx also offers an eight-week online version of the course – known as “Quantitative Biology Workshop” – through edX.
 
The workshop welcomed students with a wide range of backgrounds; some participants had never programmed before, while others were new to biology. “I didn’t realize how important it is, as a bio and chemistry major, to also have a background in programming,” said Sheena Vasquez, a junior at Georgia Perimeter College.
 
“I have no formal background in biology,” added Alejandro Vientos, a computer science major at the University of Puerto Rico. “This has done a lot to push me in that direction – 
biology has a lot of interesting problems.”
 
For several students, the time they spent at MIT through the MSRP and the Quantitative Methods Workshop provided an unexpected boost of confidence. “One of the things I really love about this program is the collaboration and the high caliber of everyone here,” said Kevin White, a biology and neuroscience major at Howard University. “It inspires you to do your best and go to the top, and not be afraid to do what you didn’t think you could do.”
 
“The idea of applying to a top school became more attainable,” added Candace Ross, a computer engineering major at Howard.
 
Cassandra Schaening, who attended the workshop two years ago, felt the same way. “It was sort of that whole thing where you don’t think you’re competitive enough, but it was after I came here that I was actually more encouraged to apply,” she said. Now, Schaening is a graduate student in computational and systems biology at MIT.
 
“Even in such a short workshop, you work at a really intense pace. The workshop is seven days, 10-hour days; you’re just working constantly and absorbing new information every minute,” Schaening recalled. “It’s just so much more than you’re used to doing, and you realize – this is something I can do. I can work at this level. And you want more of it.”
 
About MSRP - Bio
One of the most powerful tools for increasing diversity in the life sciences has been the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) in biology. A spinoff of the more centralized MSRP, this program was initiated in 2003. Coordinated by Mandana Sassanfar, it helps the department’s efforts in minority recruiting and retention. 
 
The MIT Summer Research Program in biology is designed to encourage students from underrepresented minority groups, first-generation college students, and students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds to attend graduate school and pursue a career in basic research by providing them with the opportunity to conduct supervised research in a top-notch research institution in a supportive learning environment featuring plenty of interaction with graduate students and faculty. Students selected for the program have demonstrated academic excellence, a strong interest in research, and financial need and typically attend institutions with limited research opportunities.
 
Over 85% of past participants have enrolled in top graduate programs within 
2 years of completing this summer program. A number of our summer interns were also awarded Goldwater Scholarships, 3-year pre-doctoral NSF fellowships, or 5-year Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study.