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Department's goal to meld data and disciplines

July 26, 2006

Once known as the Life Sciences department, the department of Integrated Natural Sciences is reinventing, reinvigorating and adapting itself to our changing world. Integrated Natural Sciences is housed in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University’s West campus.

Under the leadership of department chair Douglas Dennis, the faculty has developed a curriculum focusing on experimental learning and the integration of the department’s educational disciplines—biology, chemistry and physics.

“I believe that the changes that we have made, and are continuing to make, to the curriculum and to our undergraduate research program are resulting in better prepared students,” said Dennis. “We are beginning to see that a much higher percentage of our students are going on to medical, graduate and health-professional schools.”

In the past three years, enrollment has more than doubled, even as the department has expanded its faculty-student reach partnership and community involvement. About $1 million in grants is being used to fund interdisciplinary student projects and student-faculty research.

One of the projects is known as the “Lizard Project,” which allows students enrolled in chemistry, cell biology, genetics, and ecology and physics labs to research various aspects of the desert tree lizard. The approach trains scientists to integrate data and scientific observations from a multiplicity of disciplines.

Since 2002, eight faculty members have joined the staff, and more are slated for hire. The department’s goal is to hire faculty who believe that conducting research enhances teaching and learning, while strengthening the department’s undergraduate research programs. Many of the new faculty members are nationally and internationally recognized for their research.

In the meantime, ASU has invested $400,000 in research and teaching instrumentation in the last year, and $800,000 to renovate the school’s existing research facilities at the West campus. Last year, the department won $175,000 in grants for a student-faculty research project involving an “atomic force microscope.” The state-of-the-art instrument can be used to study the molecular structure of bacteria and DNA.

The department’s primary goal is to provide students with the knowledge and perspective needed to succeed in this area of rapid social economic and environmental change.

“My personal aim is to keep this trend going,” said Dennis.