Date Posted: 10/05/2000

By Roger Segelken

Cornell is making it clear that it aims to become the very best place to learn sciences that don't fit old academic labels. The inclusion of an educational component in interdisciplinary research is viewed as essential training for what will be the first generation of researchers in the new science of life. These invaluable opportunities for education and research in novel scientific areas will enable more Cornell students to take up President Hunter Rawlings on his offer to "study at the best research university for undergraduate research." As just one example, the loosely defined "computational biology group" at Cornell is gaining a wide reputation not only for its researchers but also because it is making education an essential part of this frontier discipline. There also are plans to create an u ndergraduate program for students who want to add computational biology to their existing field of study. And a graduate degree program in computational molecular biology has just started.

The freshman year, some educators say, is not too soon to start. Some freshmen find themselves quickly enlisted by Carlo Montemagno, the associate professor of biological engineering whose nanobiotechnology research tries to create biomechanical devices even smaller than bacteria. "Freshmen are doing some extraordinary things," Montemagno says. A senior research associate in his group agrees: Hercules Neves, who oversees undergraduates working in the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility, reports that the young scientists-in-training work side-by-side with graduate students, postdocs and staff researchers. The undergraduates, notes Neves, are accorded the same research privileges and the same expectations of success. Undergraduate research fellowships from corporations, including General Electric, provide work-study salaries and laboratory supplies. The professor's job, said Montemagno, is to "keep the students focused on what they are doing and increase the challenges incrementally so they are not swamped but not bored, either."

Ron Elber, professor of computer science who is a leading figure in the computational biology group, co-teaches a graduate course in plant breeding and computer science, "Problems and Perspectives in Computational Molecular Biology," that also is open to undergraduates. The best way to conduct such a course, says co-instructor Susan McCouch, associate professor of plant breeding, is to pair up students from biology backgrounds with students from math, computer science and statistics. McCouch is particularly proud of the undergraduates she works with in the Presidential Research Scholars program. And she cites student Chris Maher as an outstanding example: He excels in plant research while creating instructional materials for high school students. Among Maher's science-outreach projects is a computer game to teach younger students about transposable genetic elements in rice and maize.

"My undergraduate research at Cornell has been an enriching experience, allowing me to interact with remarkable faculty members in multiple disciplines," Maher said. "It has been very rewarding working for faculty who have given me many opportunities and responsibilities." One new curriculum grew from an interdisciplinary field that hardly existed until a Cornell professor coined a name for it: nanobiotechnology. Now the W.M. Keck Program in Nanobiotechnology enrolls doctoral students who work at the "nano" scale (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) on medically oriented devices that combine properties of the organic and the inorganic. Although based in the College of Engineering, Keck Fellows are free to range across the university, learning their skills wherever they are taught. "We knew that tomorrow's nanobiotechnologists would need the best education from several different disciplines," said Michael Isaacson, Cornell physicist and founding director of the Keck Program. A new class for Keck Fellows and anyone else who is interested and qualified has mathematician Richard Durrett teaching a course that seems to symbolize the interdisciplinary nature of the Keck program: "Using Probability Models to Understand DNA Sequence Evolution." Another course has Elber teaching "Numerical Methods in Comparative Molecular Biology."