Training Undergraduates to Solve Medical Problems Using Data Science, Quantitative Analysis and Systems Modeling

In Spring 2020, there was good news for the University of Virginia's summer program for students interested in systems bioengineering research. The program had been renewed for another three years by the National Science Foundation. It was now expanded to include training opportunities in biomedical data science, as well as multi-scale systems modeling. The number of faculty mentors and research labs available to mentor undergraduate researchers had doubled.

But the good news of the program’s renewal coincided with the increasingly bad news of the pandemic. Residential summer programs at universities across the U.S., including at UVA, were cancelled. Summer plans were suddently in limbo. The last opportunity for a pivotal hands-on experience prior to graduation vanished for many rising seniors.

Timothy Allen, principal investigator for the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program (REU) in Multi-scale Systems Bioengineering and Biomedical Data Science, saw an opportunity to pivot. Allen, a professor in the University's Department of Biomedical Engineering, decided to offer a remote-mentored summer research option. He enrolled ten students from colleges outside UVA and found additional funding to recruit three UVA undergraduates. “I think that over half of our participants had previously been accepted to other programs that were later canceled,” he said.

The program was a success, and several students continued to work on their projects with their UVA mentors into the Fall. Two program alumni from the summer 2020 cohort have gone on to earn prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships (NSF-GRFP).

This summer UVA will once again host a “virtual” version of the program. Over the ten-week program, participants can expect to work full time. A typical week might include one or more one-on-one meetings with the faculty mentor, attendance at the group’s lab meeting, and smaller group meetings with other students in the lab. There will also be regular meetings with the rest of the REU cohort to cover topics such as systems modeling and biomedical data science basics, research ethics and professional development. The rest of the time the students will work independently.

Allen explained: “It’s almost certain that the REU will have to be completely virtual all ten weeks, but if there is an opportunity to allow non-UVA undergraduates into our labs early this summer, then the program could pivot to allow that opportunity for REU students who are able to make the move mid-summer. But coming to Charlottesville wouldn’t be required; any REU student may remain fully virtual for the duration of the program.”

Timohty Allen, PhD is an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Principal Investigator for UVA's National Science Foundation-funded research program for undergraduates interested in systems bioengineering and biomedical data science.