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St. Olaf receives $1.6 million NSF grant

By Kari VanDerVeen
July 20, 2011

The St. Olaf Center for Interdisciplinary Research will be expanding this year, thanks to a $1.6 million grant the college recently received from the National Science Foundation.

The funding will support the work of the expanded Center for Interdisciplinary Research (dubbed the eCIR) over the next five years. The program will continue its original mission of partnering teams of statistics students to work with faculty on interdisciplinary research projects, but the new funding will enable students studying applied mathematics and computer science to participate as well.

"This will open up the benefits of this type of interdisciplinary research to a greater number of students and faculty across campus," says Associate Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics Matt Richey, who will co-direct the eCIR with Professor of Statistics Julie Legler. Associate Professor of Computer Science Dick Brown and Associate Professor of Statistics Paul Roback will also help coordinate the program.

The eCIR will support up to 30 student researchers during each academic year and up to eight fully funded student researchers each summer. An emphasis will be placed on supporting students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The program will also include a focus on student writing and the submission of papers to peer-reviewed journals, as well as funding for students to travel to various conferences to present their research.

Also included in the expansion of the program is funding for two postdoctoral fellows with expertise in applied or computational mathematics who will serve as mentors for eCIR students. The fellows, in turn, will also receive guidance and mentorship from faculty in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science. They will each serve a two-year term at the college, and Richey says the goal is that the fellows will take the concepts of the eCIR to the academic institutions at which they go on to serve.

The Center for Interdisciplinary Research was established in 2004 with a five-year, $1.3 million NSF grant. At the time, no other academic institution had an interdisciplinary research program like it. But the overwhelming success of the program — with more than 50 of its alumni having gone on to graduate school — has attracted the attention of schools across the country. "It's fairly well-known now, and other institutions are starting to follow this model," Richey says.

That's one of the reasons why another important component of the eCIR is an assessment of how the program works. Working with an external assessment team from the University of California at Berkeley, coordinators of the eCIR will examine the efficacy of undergraduate research as a motivator for a future career in the mathematical sciences. They will also demonstrate that the CIR model of undergraduate research is adaptable to other institutions. Funding is included in the grant to hold summer workshops for faculty from other institutions to exchange information on building interdisciplinary undergraduate research programs.

Richey and Legler note that getting a second five-year grant for the CIR shows how impressed the NSF has been with the program. St. Olaf is one of only two liberal arts colleges to have received grants of more than $1 million in mathematics from the NSF, and now St. Olaf has received a second grant of that size from the foundation.

"The NSF really sees the importance of this program and what we're doing," Legler says. "We're pretty proud of that. It's a tremendous testament to the St. Olaf Statistics Program, and it is exciting that more faculty and students from the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science will now be involved."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or