ASU MTBI: Making each other look good

Wednesday, June 3, 2015 to Thursday, July 23, 2015

This was the third summer for improvscience to lead an improv for STEM professionals workshop at the Mathematical, Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI) created by Carlos Castillo Chavez. Carlos and MTBI know that research at its best is a collaborative process in which colleagues bring their curiosity, intellect, tools and experience to address a question of interest. It's an iterative process that includes excitement, passion, disappointment and disagreements. This experience of pushing to create a solution and to work at the edge of what is known is one that many students experience only once they arrive in graduate school.  Learning to do this as part of a group, as a collaborative process in which everyone is supported to succeed, is a hit or miss experience for many of us in any profession. Fortunately for the participants of the MTBI, they get to experience both: collaboration and creative problem solving.

The students and faculty in MTBI work side by side to develop mathematical models of biological phenomena. The questions asked, the systems modeled, are ones proposed by the students. The students are told from the start of the program think about what you want to research. They are pointed to previous technical reports at MTBI as well as introduced to the work of graduate students and faculty of ASU Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center (SAL MCMSC) who are part of MTBI. When it comes time to propose their projects, the undergraduate students lead while the graduate students and faculty bring their experience to support the creation of a mathematical science research project.

The environment is improvisational. The faculty and graduate students work to accept and work with the direction the undergraduates want to go. YES: we will work with the question you want to ask; AND: in more detail, what is it that you're interested in? AND: how will you try to answer your question? The And questions seem daunting. They are beyond what the students can answer when they first present. They are just beyond them. Yet the faculty and graduate students believe these undergraduates can answer the questions and they will work with them to do so. They are being related to as "a head taller" than they are (Vygotsky, Holzman).

In improv, a main tenet, is make your partners look good. The setting is MTBI and the characters are undergraduates through faculty. The students make the faculty look good by making use of their suggestions and questions to reshape their projects. the faculty and graduate students make the undergraduates look good by expecting and providing resources for them to produce quality research projects. The projects are not canned, already known. They emerge from the collective experience and collaborative skills of the MTBI ensemble of that summer and are submitted each year to SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science) as research posters.

SACNAS and the MTBI program are demographically diverse. Yep, these groups succeed in research and reaching across America. To learn how to mentor diverse groups, to learn how to create rich collaborative research environments and to be engaged in environments for passionate research, join improvscience at ASU Simon A. Levin Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center (SAL MCMSC).

Spoiler alert:  Colony Collapse of Bees; DNA breakage and neuro-degenerative diseases; Genetics and diet of obesity are just 3 of the topics of these undergraduate students are tackling.  For the full report keep an eye on SACNAS 2015 and the technical reports at SAL MCMSC.

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