Decipher the Why and How in Biology with Quantitative Modeling.
What do wasp nests, your balance, and oak trees have in common? They are all complex biological systems that can be explored and explained through biological modeling. Usually, biologists tend to specialize in a particular genus or species but Dr. Karsai focuses on the complex mathematical functions taking place across the natural world. He is a biologist and ecologist by training but also has strong computational and quantitative skills that he uses to study the laws of biological pattern formation and analyzing biological data using mathematical and statistical methods.
One of the many projects Dr. Karsai is working on looks to develop a diagnostic device based on the fine sways of the body when standing. Collaborating with Allison Hilbun, a biomedical PhD student, the project is truly interdisciplinary, merging biology, medicine, physics, complexity science and mathematics to develop a diagnostic method. This method collects thousands of data points from a patient. After characterizing the data with complexity measures, such as Hurst exponents, the health state of the body can be assessed.
Computational and modeling skills are important tools to students working in biological research, but few get an opportunity to learn these skills while in school. The need for skill building in mathematical biology has been recognized by both the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Karsai has responded to this need by developing a course in modeling biological systems and collaborated with two of his colleagues at the University of Maryland to assess the success of this course in gaining quantitative skills.
The course is designed to use biological processes as context for learning mathematical modeling. While there is a small lecture portion to the course, the bulk of the time is spent in lab learning to use free software to build biological models. Many students reported that the computer lab section of the course was helpful improving their biology knowledge and quantitative skills. This hands-on approach also gave students new insight into the importance of mathematics in the field of biology. It has helped students learn more about the connection between disciplines and how to communicate complex systems with audiences that are otherwise unfamiliar with their field of study such as decision makers in business and policy.
Students from all areas of biological studies can apply modeling to their work. Dr. Karsai has worked with students on projects to develop real world advanced models. Recent projects have included water flow and lake level depletion in California, the physiology of calcium flow between embryos and egg shells in reptiles, and the history of ecological and sociological tragedy of Easter Island.
Pre-medical, medical, Biology, Ecology, and Molecular Biology students have all used knowledge gained in the class to develop complex models specific to their areas of study. Many have gone on to build additional models related to their own research interests.
This course, Biol 4367/5367, will be offered ETSU during the 2015 fall semester. The only pre-requisite is completion of the biology core classes. Background knowledge in high-level math is not a prerequisite, all the computational skills needed are developed within the course.