CU Boulder’s new minor combines disciplines like biology, computer science and mathematics
Undergraduates at the University of Colorado Boulder interested in biology and computer science used to have to find creative ways to blend their interests on their own. That changed when CU Boulder launched a computational biology minor this past year.
The program offers interdisciplinary classes to undergraduates interested in the intersection of fields like biology, computer science and mathematics. This, in turn, allows students and researchers to develop new ways of understanding biological data, species’ behavior, the structure of genomes and other types of complex biological systems. The minor teaches students to approach biological questions using computational ways of thinking, such as simulating ecosystems using mathematical models.
The field offers opportunities to delve into specialized research of living organisms but also explores the way these findings fit into a wider understanding of biological systems. When communities consider trying to alter the behaviors of biological phenomena, like viruses, computational biology approaches can help leaders make informed decisions that predict outcomes of those choices.
Computational biology is extraordinarily relevant to some of the biggest questions and challenges we’re facing globally.”
“Computational biology is extraordinarily relevant to some of the biggest questions and challenges we’re facing globally,” says Kristin Powell, director of interdisciplinary education with the BioFrontiers Institute and associate director of the minor. “One thing that has come out of the last year is the pressing need for computational biology to study phenomena like the spread of COVID-19 and how we stop it.”
Creating a broad, interdisciplinary vision
The minor emerged from CU Boulder’s interdisciplinary BioFrontiers Institute. Faculty had seen success in its graduate-level IQ Biology PhD program, but they wanted to address a growing gap in opportunities for undergraduates to learn about these innovative ideas.
Rather than follow the program designs of peer universities, which in many cases add some computer science coursework to a biology major or vice versa, CU Boulder’s faculty opted to make the program as interdisciplinary, cross-departmental, cross-college and collaborative as possible.
“There was a fateful meeting in the biotech building where we got 10 faculty from across campus in the room and we asked, ‘If we designed a computational biology degree from the ground up, focusing on the most important ideas in the field, what would our ideal program look like?’” says Aaron Clauset, associate professor of computer science and faculty director of the minor. “‘How would it train young scholars for the next century of biological research?’ It was an inspiring meeting.”
Key support came from Robin Dowell, who is associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and a member of the BioFrontiers Institute's core faculty. Dowell’s research focuses on computational biology and uses an "antedisciplinary approach," whereby she "ignores boundaries between disciplines to follow this biological problem wherever it leads."
By the end, the team had a rough template for a computational biology minor. With the plan in hand, Powell, Clauset and Dowell began realizing the vision.
Launching the minor took about three years. Powell, Clauset and Dowell worked closely with a team to build an interdisciplinary curriculum and audits, establish the program’s administrative home in the Computer Science Department, determine how students gain access to coursework, decide who advised students and generate cross-college support.
“Each stage of launching an interdisciplinary program requires a lot of care,” notes Powell, “because the ultimate goal is to ensure that academic and administrative support enables undergraduates to seamlessly navigate an interdisciplinary education.”
Amplifying CU Boulder’s remarkable opportunities
After launching in collaboration with the Computer Science Department, the program quickly gained interest from students across the university, many of whom had previously tried to bring together their interests in biology, computation and mathematics on their own.
One student, Maria Carilli, did not realize CU Boulder had launched a minor in computational biology until she began researching graduate schools that focus on bioinformatics.
“One program that stood out to me, because I value interdisciplinary approaches to problems, was CU’s IQ Biology PhD program,” says Carilli. “I was put in touch with Dr. Kristin Powell, and she told me about that graduate program and then also about this really exciting opportunity that was just starting up, the computational biology minor.”
Enrolling opened opportunities for Carilli, who graduated in spring 2021 with majors in biophysics and music and a minor in computational biology, to learn a new coding language, study methods of thinking and apply many of the tools she had learned over her CU Boulder academic experience.
She particularly enjoyed classes on biological networks, taught by Aaron Clauset, and statistical analysis of the human genome, taught by John Rinn. In both cases, students downloaded large data sets from publicly accessible databases to generate predictive algorithms and draw new conclusions.
“CU is so big and such a great research university, all of the departments are really strong,” says Carilli. “The interdisciplinary nature of computational biology is really well-served by CU.”
Carilli, who begins a PhD program in biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the California Institute of Technology in fall 2021, notes that, at first, the broad list of faculty and students’ majors, which span thirteen undergraduate majors and counting, was exciting but also intimidating. At the time, she was concerned she would have gaps in her skills that would put her at a disadvantage.
For those undergraduates who are hesitant about computational biology because of similar worries, she has this advice:
“Don't be afraid to explore things that you don't have experience in. That's the way you're going to learn and the way you're going to discover what you actually like and what you want to do.”
To enroll in the computational biology minor, students can submit a statement of interest and speak with Eva Lacy, the program’s undergraduate academic advisor.
The computational biology minor gained guidance and support from Robin Dowell and the Computational Biology Committee, Ken Anderson, Rhonda Hoenigman, Eva Lacy, Kim Noice, Mary Steiner, Beth Webb, Amber McDonnell, Eli Hallowell, Travis Torline, Lorenzo Rivas, the Computer Science Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Undergraduate Education Council, the BioFrontiers Institute and the many staff, faculty, deans and partner departments in the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering and Applied Science.