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Profiles in a DU Pioneer Education

Natural Sciences & Mathematics

Q&A with Andrei Kutateladze, Natural Sciences & Mathematics (NSM), part one

Dean Andrei Kutateladze, Natural Sciences & MathematicsWith excitement building around DU’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) initiative, we sat down with Dean Kutateladze to talk about what’s going on in NSM.

Q: Give us a brief overview of your school – a general snapshot of the education you provide to students.

NSM has a vibrant and dynamic learning and research environment. Most of what we teach is “hard science;” we start with general basic competencies all STEM professionals need to have, and we add increasingly sophisticated scholastic experiences. It’s not easy; a lot of hard work, long hours in the lab, field trips. Because we are a small private school, we have a low student-to-professor ratio and therefore can offer very meaningful hands-on experiential learning with research projects and field study. Many students in our program take advantage of the opportunity to work on an exploratory project with faculty. Our undergraduate and graduate students do not just “consume” knowledge, they help create new knowledge. The value of their DU degree is in their expert ability to solve problems of tomorrow, problems which have not even been formulated today. 

Q: Tell us about how your research institutes, facilities and travel courses provide students with an experiential approach to learning.

The underlying theme here is that our professors are not just instructors; they are also world-class experts in their fields. We have been successful in recruiting faculty members of the highest caliber. All are passionate scholar-teachers and leaders who actually interact with their students one-on-one and provide them with real opportunities for scholarship and research.

Parents are increasingly concerned about the future for their children. Our department chairs and I talk to parents for hours during Discoveries week, and the vast majority of the questions are about the kind of hands-on research experience and opportunities their kids will have outside of the formal classroom. That’s where we can say what we do is real.

DU has an excellent mechanism for supporting undergraduate research and scholarship projects across schools and divisions – it is called PinS, Partners in Scholarship. Additionally, due to the competitiveness of the NSM faculty for federal and private research grants, our undergraduates have unprecedented opportunities to participate in the research projects of our faculty.

For example, Professor Robin Tinghitella in biology is studying the behavior and rapid evolution in Polynesian field crickets, and she was able to bring a student with her to Hawaii to do field research and collect cricket eggs which they breed and study in the lab. This summer another undergraduate will travel to Moorea, French Polynesia with Dr. Tinghitella to study different reproductive strategies of the Polynesian field cricket. Professor Matthew Taylor in geography teaches field classes in Guatemala and Nicaragua on political ecology of natural resources. We own the observatory atop Mount Evans managed by physics and astronomy professor Robert Stencel – really high science!

This is just a snapshot of what our faculty and students are doing together; it’s this kind of hands-on experience that gets students hooked on science and math! It became possible because our faculty – as experts in their respective fields – engage in scholarship, run their research labs, and successfully compete for research grants nationally to support all these outside-of-the-classroom research and scholarship activities, critical to professional growth of our students.

Q: How will the University’s STEM initiative affect current NSM programming? How do you see student enrollment outreach expanding or changing?

It’s a good time for sciences; the pendulum of public opinion is swinging in the right direction.  According to the best job of 2014 is mathematician; sciences and math are cool again!  Parents and students realize it’s a long-term trend, and there’s a clear understanding in the U.S. that at the end of all the hard work in school, there are real jobs and enjoyable careers out there. STEM students can have a really intellectually rewarding life.  

We attract young souls to the sciences by providing unprecedented direct access to the best minds these students will encounter: our faculty. We expect to grow a little; biology is already the largest undergraduate major across the University, and there’s clear growth in the sciences. You can see from our admissions statistics that NSM is attracting top-performing incoming students, and there is every reason to believe that this trend will continue. Our sights are on the quality; our size is commensurate with our goals of maintaining a high academic quality and actually caring about undergraduate students. We have achieved a balance. Additionally, our graduate students, many of them supported on research grants, contribute in meaningful ways to the rich undergraduate experience and the research enterprise we’ve established. 

By Katie Watt

Posted June 24, 2014


Q: How do you describe the value of collaborating and offering cross-disciplinary programs with other schools and University departments, specifically within the STEM disciplines?

The new Knoebel Center for the Study of Aging is a great example of this.Aging initiative is a broad tent that is inclusive for all kinds of faculty expertise. It will bring together natural sciences, computer sciences, engineering, social work, psychology – all will contribute to and benefit from the planned growth of the critical mass of scholars in this area. For example, biomedical engineering employment is booming in the current economy. It was a smart choice for DU to carve this niche of biomedical research and instruction. It will bring DU’s STEM disciplines to the next level, where we can be even more competitive and create this vibrant research enterprise which will greatly benefit our students.

For sciences specifically, this new center will help grow NSM’s presence on the national arena and, at the same time, we’ll be able to offer our students opportunities for a more diverse set of courses and opportunities to engage in scholarship and research.

Additionally, cross-disciplinary programing is practical. We will have a critical mass of people who can share core equipment facilities, which will help DU get more funding dollars for research as we get more competitive nationally.

Q: What do you want people to know about NSM?

We have an excellent group of faculty who are inspiring teachers, and who successfully compete for grants nationwide to support their ambitious and dynamic research programs. This is invaluable to our students. That’s the core – that’s what sciences do. It’s a very intricate, interwoven system where successful experts in their fields create centers of research excellence, enriching our students’ academic experience. At DU, our undergraduate and graduate students have access to this. They’re utilizing state-of-the-art equipment and are working on real-world problems with faculty experts, who also shine in the classroom. Our faculty really key in and inspire their students.

Our sustained efforts in Inclusive Excellence are also worth mentioning. Traditionally some fields – physics or mathematics as a representative example – have a thin pipeline of qualified females; yet we have three female professors in our Department of Physics and Astronomy and two in Mathematics. It is, of course, not just a matter of plain statistics or tweaking the numbers. It is a matter of attitude, clearly stated goals, support networks, etc. It is a no-brainer these days: diverse and inclusive organizations flourish. In sciences the bottlenecks are often in the pipelines, so we are continually working on providing opportunities for bright female students and postdocs.

By Katie Watt

Posted July 1, 2014