Letter from the Department Head-Department of Biological Sciences - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Letter from the Department Head

“What’s new?” Many conversations begin with this phrase. In the Department of Biological Sciences the answer is typically “lots!”

The field of biological sciences is always new as technology and the focus of the field changes rapidly from year to year. As a department, we are constantly adapting to improve our teaching, training and research in ways that reflect the future of the field. Dr. Subra Suresh, the current National Science Foundation director and incoming Carnegie Mellon University president has stated that science is leaving the “Era of Observation” and entering the “Era of Data and Information.” While interest in “Big Data” is exploding across all fields of science, I think that its potential impact in biology and medicine may be greater than in any other field. Historically most discoveries in biology came from combinations of careful observation, background knowledge and intuition, while the problems confronted by today’s biologists benefit from and often require analysis of large data sets.  A typical student now might need to analyze data from genomic, proteomic or imaging experiments either to make efficient progress in the lab, or to understand how some experimental result was obtained. At Carnegie Mellon, we want to make sure that our students are prepared for this future.  

In recent years, we have adapted our curriculum to emphasize the importance of quantitative approaches in biological sciences. For example, we now require all biological sciences majors to take a course in computational biology.  We believe that these changes are important in order to better prepare all students to succeed in biomedical fields in coming years.  

Another new development causing much discussion throughout higher education is how online courses and innovative classroom technologies will influence the ways in which students learn. For many years, CMU’s Open Learning Initiative (OLI) has been a pioneer in the development of feature-rich, interactive online courses that are based on a deep understanding of how students learn and the conceptual structure of the subject matter. The depth and care of CMU’s efforts distinguishes it from the model of massive online open courses (MOOCs) being explored in other universities. Also, a hallmark of the education that our department provides is the importance placed on doing science, not just learning the results of science. Whether it’s in an undergraduate lab course or through a research lab experience, many of our
undergraduates find working in lab to be their most formative experience at CMU. We are trying to find ways to expand and improve this critical component of the education that we provide.   

Hiring new faculty is one of the most important decisions the department makes. New faculty bring fresh ideas about research and education, along with excitement and energy to the department. They also represent the department’s predictions about future exciting directions of the field of biological sciences. This fall, we welcomed three new faculty members, who collectively strengthen our department in critical areas of neuroscience, genomics and microbiology. These new faculty – profiled in this issue of The Promoter – are rapidly integrating themselves into the research and teaching missions of the department. Drs. Aryn Gittis and Sandy Kuhlman are both neuroscientists working on understanding the development and plasticity of neural circuits. Dr. Gittis is focused on understanding the circuitry that underlies movement disorders, whereas Dr. Kuhlman is interested in how inhibitory neurons regulate activity and plasticity in sensory systems. Dr. Luisa Hiller is a microbiologist studying the role of genomic diversity and genomic plasticity in bacterial infections. Collectively, these three new hires will play an important role in shaping the future of teaching and research in the department.

I hope that all of you – friends and alumni of the Department of Biological Sciences –have a chance to tell us what is new with you by keeping in touch. Whether its via an e-mail or a post to our Facebook page, we love getting updates about the impact our department and our students are making beyond CMU’s campus.


By: Nathan Urban, Ph.D.