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Math & Bio 2010: Linking Undergraduate Disciplines

Lynn Arthur Steen, editor
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Judy Holdener
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Every faculty member of the mathematical, biological, and computational sciences should read Math & Bio 2010: Linking Undergraduate Disciplines. In this volume of articles, scientists who have been working at the intersection of math, biology, and computer science discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by the "new biology," a biology that relies heavily on quantitative, computational, and mathematical methods. As all contributors note, biology (and, in fact, science as a whole) is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary in its nature, relying more heavily on mathematics and computer science. These changes are dictating a need to change the undergraduate curriculum. As biologist Julius Jackson of Michigan State University explains, "The undergraduate curriculum must change to raise expectations and meet the challenge to educate new biological scientists capable of joining in research collaboration with mathematicians, computer scientists, physical scientists, and engineers to solve biological questions."

The contributors to Math & Bio 2010 envision an undergraduate science curriculum that provides more diverse training at all stages of education. They outline their recommendations for progress as well as the challenges involved. The volume contains useful resources for faculty who are facing these challenges, including lists of relevant contacts, websites, research programs, course materials, software packages and more. Also provided, are many profiles of existing interdisciplinary programs that relate to the biological sciences. These profiles are useful because they vary in size and nature, representing many different types of colleges and universities from across the United States.

The contributors reach a consensus when identifying a major obstacle hampering progress in the new biology: biology majors are often "math-averse". In the words of Lynn Steen, "biology education is burdened by habits of the past where biology was seen as a safe harbor for math-averse science students." According to biologist John Jungck, faculty sometimes share this fear and "many biologists appear intimidated by the thought of having to relearn (or in some cases, learn for the first time) the mathematics and computer science that their biology majors learn in the first two undergraduate years." There is great concern that progress in research is hampered by scientists who lack the mathematical and computational skills necessary to tackle the complex problems facing biologists today. As Julius Jackson explains, "too often, biologists use the tools of bioinformatics to study biological questions without adequate knowledge of the limitations of these tools." John Jungck agrees and describes how this problem indirectly hurts students: "unless these mathematical procedures are unpacked and made explicitly visible to instrument and computer users, it will be difficult for [professors] to judge what sorts of mathematics and computer science are most appropriate for specific courses and curricular materials."

A unified response to the problems cited above is the recommendation that colleges and universities support faculty who devote time and energy to curriculum development. Biology courses need to include larger quantitative and computational components, and faculty need to be given the necessary time and resources to make this happen. More generally, science faculty should be encouraged to create new interdisciplinary courses and programs that will prepare students for the state of science in the twenty-first century.

According to contributors, the inherent structure of academic systems raises additional challenges to overcome. The current system creates barriers by separating disciplines into departments and offers a merit system that favors publication over curriculum development. Often times teamwork is discouraged as faculty grow more and more focused in their own narrow field of research. Julius Jackson describes the problem from the point of view of a biologist:

In order to obtain a "permanent position" in the tenure stream of an academic institution or a research position in industry, biological scientists take several post docs to pump out papers. The dilemma of too many post doctoral researchers for the available number of permanent positions in the U.S. has long promoted a training atmosphere in which the emphasis on numbers of publications limited the research to a narrow disciplinary focus in an effort to maximize productivity. University faculty strive to gain and sustain research productivity by publication of peer-reviewed research articles and books. The intensity of research focus required for competitive productivity in a discipline tends to discourage faculty pursuit of novelty in direction or method. It should not be surprising, then, that a major challenge for the type of curriculum revision proposed [in Math & Bio 2010] is how to encourage and reward faculty to participate and contribute to major changes."

Another obstacle for change comes from publishers who are hesitant to publish biology texts that include significant mathematical content. According to Leah Edelstein-Keshet, former president of the Society of Mathematical Biology, "biology texts that are devoid of formulae and equations are more accessible, and hence more marketable. This has meant that, over time, the prevalent biological course materials are those that omit mathematics, even in instances where mathematics has an essential role to play."

Other challenges cited include: difficulties related to preparing diverse student bodies for an increasingly diverse range of career fields in the biological sciences; large enrollments (particularly in introductory biology courses); little flexibility in tight syllabi; and low quantitative expectations established for admission into professional schools in health-related fields. Having said all this, I do not want to give the impression that Math & Bio 2010 focuses primarily on the challenges that need to be overcome. On the contrary, I found the overall tone of the report to be optimistic, positive, and inspiring. Contributors, speaking from experience, offered their advice on building valuable interdisciplinary connections, including relevant resources along the way. It was interesting to note that biologists were generally much more critical of the biological curriculum than mathematicians were. Mathematicians were optimistic about the research opportunities offered by the new biology, admitting that learning the new methodologies and vocabulary was sometimes daunting. Computer scientist Paul Tyman summed it up well: "to increase the chances of success, strategies to overcome obstacles need to be diverse, ongoing, and adaptable. Real problems need to be solved by people with the vision to see these opportunities and the willingness to embrace new ideas." Math & Bio 2010 does reflect this vision.

I stated at the onset that every faculty member of the mathematical, biological, and computational sciences should read Math & Bio 2010. I will add that I believe college and university administrators should read the report as well. Anybody making important decisions that affect the future of science education should be aware of the challenges and opportunities offered by the new biology. In the words of biologist Maria Alvarez: "to meet the challenge of emerging interdisciplinary biological fields, we need to develop a mathematical culture" on campus. Creating this culture will require efforts from faculty and administrators alike.

Judy Holdener is currently an Associate Professor at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She can be reached at

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