CLA Pilots Two Programs for Students in Science-Related Majors


By Jamie Dickson (CLA '05)

The College of Liberal Arts recently introduced two new programs for students in science and science-related majors. PRISM (Program in Integrated Science and Mathematics) and BOMM (Biology, Organic Chemistry and Mathematical Modeling) were piloted at the beginning of the fall semester. 

PRISM is a partnership between the biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and psychology departments with faculty members representing each discipline. The 24 participating students earn 10 academic credits each semester. 

Dr. Katherine Northcutt, assistant professor of biology, learned about a similar program at a workshop at the University of Richmond and thought it would be a good fit for Mercer students who need help preparing for calculus. “It's a yearlong program for freshman, and it includes pre-calculus. A lot of students come in and place into calculus, but PRISM students need to take pre-calculus first,” Dr. Northcutt said. “We are trying to prepare these students for calculus while also applying the math to these sciences.” 

PRISM students also participate in authentic research. This year, the laboratory component integrates research from the disciplines of biology, physics, and psychology as the students study the ecology and behavior of the local squirrel population. 

PRISM students had to complete an application in the spring, and Northcutt said she and the PRISM professors wanted hardworking students who would benefit from the extra mentoring, who were excited to work in teams and who were interested in research. “We wanted to make sure we selected the really motivated students,” she said. 

BOMM was designed to connect intro biology II and organic chemistry with the aim of providing an integrated laboratory experience. This program allows students to perform authentic research as first semester sophomores. Students are synthesizing a novel class of antibiotics and then testing the new drugs' efficacy in inhibiting bacterial biofilm formation, said Dr. Linda Hensel, professor and chair of the Biology Department. 

“One of the leading fields of pharmaceutical innovation is anti-biofilm drug production, so our sophomores are performing cutting-edge research. Students learn to read the primary and secondary literature, design drugs, trouble-shoot relatively novel protocols, and present their findings in a publication quality format,” Dr. Hensel said. “We teach some of these skills in our regular lab classes, but we usually do so with laboratory exercises for which we know the results, so-called 'canned labs.' Hence, the BOMM students are really receiving a graduate student-like experience.”

Math is also a key component of this program. “The integration of mathematical modeling is important, because as science moves toward big data sets, integrating mathematics with science will be a required skill in the near future,” Dr. Hensel said. “The larger science organizations, such as NSF and AAAS, have realized that we need to address these skills in our current curriculum. We infused mathematical modeling into the course for this very reason.”

Caroline Jackson, a sophomore from Savannah, said BOMM is beneficial to her Mercer career and beyond. “I believe that the BOMM program will open new doors for me throughout the rest of my time here at Mercer. It has given me research experience this semester and has already opened up a research opportunity for me this summer,” she said. “For post-graduation, I hope to attend Mercer's medical school, and by participating in this class I hope that it will better my understanding of biology and organic chemistry so that I can succeed on the MCAT, which will help me in my application process.”