MATLAB Integrated with MITx for Biological Computation

  • Biology (Course 7)
Dr. Mandana Sassanfar


Dr. Mandana Sassanfar
Dr. Mary Ellen Wiltrout

Digital Innovations & Tools: 

  • Blended Learning & Flipped Classroom
  • Flexible Course Delivery
  • Simulations & Visualizations

Computational Skills in Biology and Neuroscience
Students in biology and related fields need advanced skills with quantitative tools and programming languages such as MATLAB and Python to analyze experimental data in biology and neuroscience. Scientists and students use these computational skills on a regular basis now in biology labs.

In response to this need, Dr. Mandana Sassanfar created a 1-week intensive quantitative methods workshop (7.QBW) specifically designed to introduce students to quantitative tools and programming languages needed in biological and neuroscience research. Registration is by invitation only for students and faculty from a limited number of institutions with MARC, RISE, and HHMI programs. Students learn to use Python, MATLAB, and R code to analyze biological data. Many students who take this workshop return to MIT for summer internships and several have entered MIT's graduate program in biology. 

In 2014, Dr. Sassanfar collaborated with Dr. Mary Ellen Wiltrout to convert the in-person workshop to a digital version. The workshop started using an MITx site to host the workshop content and activities including MATLAB boxes that allowed the students to try coding and receive feedback on correctness. These materials, as well as video recorded that year, became the foundation for the MOOC version of the workshop that is shared with the public to expand the reach of this in-person outreach program. The MOOC version is especially useful to incoming graduate students who did not have the opportunity to do the 1-week intensive workshop.

MATLAB Integration with MITx/edX 
In the MOOC version, the online workshop does not require learners to download or purchase MATLAB. All MATLAB activities are run and graded within the edX platform. In the 1-week workshop, the students also practice with the downloaded version of MATLAB. In addition, Mathworks (the creator of MATLAB) created tutorial videos tailored specific to this workshop.

Student Response
“The workshop introduced me to multiple quantitative tools and programs. I had never used these tools before, and I didn’t know they could be applied so extensively across so many areas of biology. By explaining how they use these programs in their own research, the instructors gave me a concrete idea about how to analyze my own scientific results, I currently study protein-protein interactions using MATLAB — thanks to the workshop, this program is no longer intimidating!” - Lorraine De Jesus-Kim

Key Takeaway
The course fulfills an important need for students wanting to engage in quantitative research with tools such as MATLAB, Python, and R code.

Citations and resources:
Quantitative Methods Workshop
Quantitative Methods Course on edX