Sunday, May 27, 2007

Math for (this) Biologist

Sandra Porter at Discovering Biology in a Digital World (AKA Digital Biology) asked a question and generated a meme, a rather neat trick. Actually, she asks five questions, under the general question of "what mathematics courses do you think biologists should have taken?"

Her questions are in bold, my answers are in normal text.

1. Are you a biologist, if so what kind?

Yes, I'm a biologist, an evolutionary geneticist. I study evolutionary processes at the level of genomes. I'm currently working on my PhD.

2. What math did you take in college?

I failed first-year calculus, then got poor marks in an easier first-year calculus course. I also took a second-year statistics course, designed primarily for biology majors, which I got a decent (but not great) mark in. I also took a couple of upper-level biology courses that were really statistics courses with clever names like "ecological methods".

3. What math do you use?

Statistics, mainly. I use very basic algebra almost every day, for example to calculate genome sizes by comparison to internal standards or to make simple solutions of common laboratory chemicals (Ethanol, Methanol, Formalin, Magnesium chloride, et cetera). I use t-tests, ANOVA, and similar statistical tests when analysing my data. In the past I've relied pretty heavily on my knowledge of some of the underlying theory of the chi-square test and its distribution, and I think I can hold my own in a conversation involving some of the more common non-parametric tests or principal components analysis.

4. What math do you wish you'd studied?

I find calculus mysterious and intimidating, so I wish I'd studied it more - not just so I didn't fail that class, but so I could understand it at some level. Matrix algebra is used in some branches of evolutionary theory (particularly populatino genetics), so a better grounding in that would probably be useful, too. Bayesian theory is also widely used in evolutionary biology, and many of my colleagues are quite well versed in it, which is to say I'm a little jealous of their superior mathematical knowledge.

5. How do you use math in your job (or research)?

See above, answer to question 3. A bit of statistics during analysis, and a fair bit of really basic algebra every day.


Anonymous said...

i just subscribed to your blog and I wanted to say "thank you for existing" that's all

Anonymous said...


I'm the guy who subscribed to your blog.

I just read your post and found it very interesting. I'm currently looking around for the blogs of programmers to to ask them the same questions.

Biology has been my favorite subject a very long time, but lately I've been deviating towards coding. I think the reason I've become so interested in computer science is because I want to become more familiar with what biologists and creationists like to compare life to: computers.

TheBrummell said...

Fun fact: as a professional group, biologists use computers more intensively than any other. It's very possible to combine an interest in biology with strong skills in computer science - for example, the entire field of bioinformatics is essentially applying computer science to a category of interesting biological problems. Vast areas of evolutionary biology, ecology, genetics and physiology are very computationally intensive.

The world needs both more computer geeks who like biology and biologists who know computers.

Good luck with your studies!