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Studying Biology Now Requires a Grounding in Math

June 11, 2008

Recent reports suggest that biomedical scientists need a strong grounding in mathematics. But putting the right kind of mathematics into biology and related undergraduate courses is not simply a matter of adding statistics, calculus, and computer science.

"There's an uphill battle," neuroscientist Ronald Calabrese of Emory University told the HHMI Bulletin. "I've heard faculty members at department meetings say, 'Why do premed students need differential calculus? They're going to medical school!'

Biologist Karl Joplin of East Tennessee State University (ETSU) is an exception. "I wasn't good at math in high school," he admitted. "I thought biology was a field with no math. But boy, was I wrong."

Mathematical modeling, quantitative analysis, and bioinformatics are necessary to understanding the workings of neural networks, genetics, cardiac blood flow, and disease pathways within cells and throughout populations.

Joplin helped develop a three-semester introductory biology course at ETSU that integrates calculus, statistics, modeling, and other mathematical skills into the traditional curriculum. He has also pulled together more than two dozen academic institutions to revamp how biology majors are taught quantitative reasoning skills.

Still, since "the textbooks haven't changed," Joplin observed, he has also had to develop mathematics-teaching modules based on biological examples. "We want students to look at a data set and not see a blank wall," he said. "Instead, they should be able to describe the data and see something interesting in them."

Neuroscientist Fernán Jaramillo of Carleton College has also realized that the nature of biology has changed in the past 20 to 25 years. "Quantitative issues are much more central, and that is an accelerating trend," he said. "Students have to realize they won't do well without some quantitative competencies."

A decade ago, mathematician Dwight Duffus of Emory University created a course covering differential equations, probability and statistics, and modeling by using a range of biological topics—predator-prey systems, movement of species across regions, the spread of disease, and the firing of muscle neurons—to demonstrate the relevant mathematics. Yet he is still learning how to teach mathematics for biology undergraduates.

"The problem that I have, as a mathematician, is understanding the math and computing skills and knowledge biologists need in their majors," he said. "Should they be able to construct a mathematical model on their own or just be familiar with the main concepts? You have to be aware of the diverse math backgrounds and aptitudes of students."

Emory's Vaidy Sunderam favors another approach to bringing about change: more interdepartmental dialogue. "There's still this gap," he said. "Mathematicians talk of matrices and equations, and biologists talk about structure and function."

Nonetheless, Emory's interdisciplinary approach to teaching biology has quickly "captured the imagination of a broad spectrum of the community," Emory chemist David Lynn said. "We don't want to weaken the departments, but we do want to catalyze new opportunities between them. That's where the future discoveries will emerge."

Source: Howard Hughes Medical Institute, May 2008.

Start Date: 
Wednesday, June 11, 2008