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Lab experience gives students new perspective on math

July 13, 2009

The scientists in the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology (LARB), directed by Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld, at Arizona State University Polytechnic are doing more than research on algae for use in biofuels, food supplements, and water and air remediation.

The lab provides training for graduate and undergraduate students from throughout ASU’s many disciplines. Most recently, students are participating in an experiment as part of professor Abdessamad Tridane’s math class.

The experiment is affiliated with and supported by a long-term Interdisciplinary Training for Undergraduates in Biological and Mathematical Sciences (UBM) program, funded by the National Science Foundation and directed since 2003 by professor Yang Kuang in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

UBM is the first major undergraduate research training program launched by NSF. It enhances undergraduate education and training and better prepares undergraduate biology or mathematics students to pursue graduate study and careers in fields that integrate the mathematical and biological sciences. ASU’s UBM research projects have included modeling of ecological and evolutionary processes through the new lens of stoichiometric constraints, malaria disease dynamics, prostate cancer treatment and yeast genome.

The experiment at the LARB, which was started in 2007 by former UBM student Aaron Packer, has students developing a model to quantify how nitrogen availability affects algal growth and lipid biosynthesis in photobioreactors, which will help to maximize total lipid (oil) yield.

“Understanding this is important for producing microalgal biomass as feedstock for biodiesel/biofuels as efficiently as possible,” says Tridane.

“The students assumed roles based on their expertise and divided the responsibilities accordingly. It’s their work and research.”

Students feel ownership and find the experience beneficial, especially for their futures.

“We have control of the project, it is ours,” says alumna Angie McBryan, who continues to work on the experiment during the summer, along with her fellow teammates Caroline Appleton, Victoria Balogh , Channing Bonnell, Rebecca Raub, Ilyssa Summer, Christine Tomforde , Huan Wang and Yujin Zheng.

“Before this class, I did not know what I wanted to do as a career, but now I have a better sense of where I want be in the future. This research experience helped me be more competitive when applying for graduate school, too.”

This fall, McBryan will start her graduate program in ASU’s School of Mathematics and Statistics and will continue to work on this project with a focus on model formulation and analysis.

“With math, you are always discovering and finding new questions, there is no end,” Tridane says.

Yantao Li , a post-doctoral research associate, says that while the students are focusing essentially on solving a math problem, they are learning valuable life skills.

“The primary challenge of this project for the students is their limited previous laboratory experience,” says Li, who manages the students in the LARB. “They are learning that in order to succeed, they need to collaborate with biologists, chemists and bioengineers to learn and to obtain reproducible and meaningful data independently from indoor and outdoor experiments. Through this project, the students not only gain interdisciplinary training, but also practice their communication and teamwork skills in a comprehensive scientific lab,”

The students have been able to derive a series of mathematical models of phytoplankton growth in photobioreactors under both nitrogen- and light- varying conditions. But their work will continue next fall with a new crop of students.

“The UBM program is giving undergraduate students the opportunity to learn through education and research,” says Tridane. “Students are able to improve on what was done originally and are always learning throughout the process.”

Chris Lambrakis,
(480) 727-1173
Public Affairs at ASU Polytechnic campus