Math for Biologists: which courses add up?

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Sandra Porter


Keith Robison from Omics! Omics! and that fellow Evolgen, with a curious fixation on manatees, have been reminiscing about their college math requirements and speculating on which math courses biologists should take.

They've raised some interesting questions that, I think, make a good meme.

If you answer the questions, let me know, and I will add your link at the bottom of the page.

Here are the questions:

  1. Are you a biologist, if so what kind?
  2. What math did you take in college?
  3. What math do you use? 
  4. What math do you wish you'd studied?
  5. How do you use math in your job (or research)? 

Here are my answers:

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

I majored in microbiology, and got my Ph.D. in microbiology & immunology. I consider myself a molecular biologist.

2. What math have you taken in college, graduate school, or afterwards?

3 quarters of calculus in college, one quarter of statistics after graduate school

3. What math do you or have you used?

In college, I used lots and lots of algebra in my physics and chemistry courses, and in my microbiology and biochemistry lab courses.

Strange as it seems, my major (microbiology) required three quarters of caluculus and then, never gave us to opportunity to use it.  I was never asked to use calculus in a college class until after college. Then, I worked for two years as a lab technician and decided to take physical chemistry. (I took three quarters of P-chem, maybe it was the character-building aspect, or maybe it was because I had just finished reading Arrowsmith). Anyway, physical chemistry was the only course where I used calculus. And, in fact, I had to learn more of it, since we used lots of partial derivatives and I'd skipped taking the fourth quarter of the class where those were covered.

In graduate school, teaching and my work, I have never needed to use any math beyond algebra. (I'm including statistics here, since statistics uses algebra).

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

I wish I'd had more statistics. I love statistics, probability, and hypothesis testing and I would like to know more about Bayesian statistics. 

4. How have you used math in your job (or research)?

In lab research:  I would calculate concentrations of DNA, protein, antibody titerrs, oligos. I would make media, make buffers, prepare standard curves and use them to calculate the sizes of DNA fragments and proteins from gels. I would prepare growth curves, and use the exponential growth equation to estimate when my E. coli would be ready for preparing competent cells (before the days of electroporation). I would make dilutions, calculate phage titers and bacterial concentration, and use the Poisson distribution to estimate the number of bacteria infected by phage.

In educational research: I use statistics, hypothesis testing, t tests, z scores, and the usual stuff.

In bioinformatics: I use E values, graphing, quality scores, LOD scores, the Tajima equation, some probability.