Skip to main content

Science Prize Awarded to Course That Brings Biology and Math Worlds Closer

An undergraduate course that allows students to build mathematical models of biological phenomena—and to experience a convergence of disciplines with potential in areas ranging from cancer treatment to reforestation—is the winner of the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction (IBI).

Hillel Chiel, professor of biology, neurosciences, and biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University, is the creator of the course. As he explained, biology students who know how to build models of biological phenomena and engineering students who can explore biological phenomena for engineering insights are better prepared to do research in their fields.

“People who have training in both are going to have an advantage,” said Chiel.

Science’s monthly IBI Prize was developed to showcase outstanding materials, usable in a wide range of schools and settings, for teaching science courses at the college level. The materials must be designed to encourage students’ natural curiosity about how the world works, rather than to deliver facts and principles about what scientists have already discovered. Organized as one free-standing “module,” the materials should offer real understanding of the nature of science, as well as providing an experience in generating and evaluating scientific evidence. Each month, Science publishes an essay by a recipient of the award, which explains the winning project. The essay about the Dynamics of Biological Systems course, by Chiel and Case Western Reserve researchers Jeffrey Gill, Jeffrey McManus, and Kendrick Shaw, will be published on 25 May.

“We want to recognize innovators in science education, as well as the institutions that support them,” said Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “At the same time, this competition will promote those inquiry-based laboratory modules with the most potential to benefit science students and teachers. The publication of an essay in Science on each winning module will encourage more college teachers to use these outstanding resources, thereby promoting science literacy.”

A review of Chiel’s background shows the protean tendency that would evolve into the interdisciplinary approach evidenced by much of his work—including his novel designs for biologically inspired robots—and by the course module Dynamics of Biological Systems. As a child growing up on Long Island in New York, Chiel planned to be a scientist and was fascinated by how things worked. But he was so fond of reading novels that once he was almost locked in his school library overnight.

At age 14, Chiel was given an opportunity to study calculus with physicist Alan Natapoff, which he says was “a very positive experience.” When it was time for Chiel to go to college, however, he chose Yale over MIT, becoming an English major, enchanted at the thought of spending his time reading in the stacks of Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.

During the summer between Chiel’s junior and senior years, he worked in the neurochemistry lab of Richard Wurtman, doing research that resulted in the publication of Chiel’s first scientific paper. Chiel graduated from Yale and then went on to do a Ph.D. with Wurtman at MIT.

At MIT, Chiel said other students did a mental calculation when they learned he had gotten his undergraduate degree in the humanities. “They immediately subtracted about thirty IQ points,” he said. He felt, however, that his study of English had given him an exceptional ability to write about his work, which has been helpful in winning grants, publishing journal articles, and more generally, in reaching an audience. Furthermore, Chiel said, the interpreting of texts that he did as an English major, working through the themes in a novel to understand a complicated reality and see a deeper structure underlying the surface helped him in the study of biology. “You have to piece together from fragments an understanding of what’s going on. Biological systems are equally complex and overwhelming, also with a welter of detail” to unscramble. The paper from his doctoral thesis at MIT was published in Science in 1981.

In 1987, after postdoctoral work at Columbia’s Center for Neurobiology and Behavior and AT&T Bell Labs Molecular Biophysics Department, Chiel joined the faculty of Case Western Reserve University, which was in a sense a perfect place for him to develop the Dynamics of Biology module. The student body is dominated by engineering and pre-med students, and very rarely do the two populations overlap academically. Students who by inclination are drawn to study biology are wary of math, and engineering students often dislike the detail and memorization required of biology classes, preferring clear principles. Generally, the students’ education before they take a class like Dynamics of Biology reinforces their tendency to stay in one camp or the other.

“I wanted to try to change that,” said Chiel, who gives a concrete example of the kind of insight that biology can bring to engineering. In nine months, a fertilized human egg becomes an organized set of trillions of cells: a baby. “That’s a problem that evolution has solved,” Chiel said. “But if you think of it as an engineering problem, it seems intractable.”

As Chiel writes in his Science essay, “Life is an alien technology whose mastery would create novel approaches to hard problems.”

Similarly, if a student with a solid foundation in and feeling for biology can mathematize a biological phenomenon, exceptionally complex processes can be modeled, and sophisticated predictions may be made with regard to such processes as the spread of epidemics, wound healing, or cancer cell growth. A stunning example of this was James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, which won a Nobel Prize in 1962. “The thing they showed the world was a model, not the biological data itself,” Chiel said. “Topics that are subject to mathematical models include everything in biology.”

In order to explore these concepts, students in Dynamics of Biology experience what it is like to be a researcher, an approach that Chiel said derives from his first love, research. “Giving undergraduates the opportunity to explore real research questions is the best way to help them understand science, and perhaps to help them develop their own passion for the subject,” he said.

Students reconstruct already existing mathematical models of biological phenomena, sometimes even improving the original research.

“A crowning validation for the module arises out of the student work itself, as students have found and corrected errors in the peer-reviewed models of biological systems they are tasked with reconstructing,” said Melissa McCartney, editorial fellow at Science.

Perhaps even more importantly, the students extend the existing models to test new ideas, actually working with the concepts to build something new, and exercising their own understanding to do original research.

Having won the IBI Prize, Chiel reflected on what he would consider the best result of receiving the award and publishing an essay about the course module in Science. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. “If people decided to steal this and use it, I’d be delighted.”


Read the essay, “Learning Biology by Recreating and Extending Mathematical Models,” by Hillel Chiel and colleagues.

Visit the interactive textbook for the Dynamics of Biological Systems course.

Read more about the Science Prize for Inquiry-Based Instruction.