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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.  


  1. #1 Deepak
    May 23, 2007

    Answers here

  2. #2 chezjake
    May 23, 2007

    The *only* college course I took that has had direct application in every job I’ve ever held was statistics.

  3. #3 qetzal
    May 23, 2007

    No blog of my own, so I hope it’s OK to answer here in the comments.

    1. BS in General Biology, PhD in molecular biology.

    2. If I recall correctly, 2 semesters of calculus, 1 semester of statistics as an undergrad. No grad school math classes.

    3. These days, stats more than anything. Some calculus. Fair amount of algebra, but that’s from high school.

    4. Like you, I wish I’d taken more advanced stats, including things like Bayesian, power calculations, design of experiments, etc. A lot of things I do now, I had to learn on my own from books, or from talking to statisticians after I got out of grad school. The hard part isn’t learning how to calculate different stats. There are lots of programs that do that for you. The hard part is knowing which stats are appropriate for a given situation.

    5. My current math use includes a lot of analyzing data for statistical significance (T-tests, ANOVA, post-hoc comparisons) and probability calculations. Also, lots of calculating pharmacokinetic parameters. Earlier in my career, lots of calculating concentrations, molecular weights, buffer compositions & pH values, etc.

  4. #4 csrster
    May 24, 2007

    I didn’t learn partial derivatives in college … because I learned them in school. I’ve noticed that american college students – even some very bright ones – often have a bit of a complex about calculus. The dreaded “Calc” course is seen as some sort of advanced rite-of-passage for elite future scientists. I guess I’m lucky that in Britain we did a lot of calculus at school in a school-classroom setting, with a relatively small class, where there was much more time to really master both the concepts and the techniques.

    Of course, all this was 25 years ago and I believe things have gone way downhill since.

    _Statistics_, otoh, was something we only really studied at university level, which is doubtless why I’ve never been very comfortable with it (them?).

  5. #5 chris
    May 24, 2007

    Rant here

  6. #6 Frederick Ross
    May 24, 2007

    Answers here.

  7. #7 Sandra Porter
    May 24, 2007

    Neil didn’t send me a link, but I’m for completeness sake, his answers are here.

  8. #8 Sandra Porter
    May 24, 2007

    And, I found another from Animesh Sharma, at Computational biology news.

  9. #9 drerio
    May 25, 2007

    I took Calc, Number Theory, Stats, and Linear Algebra. Aside from the stats that I use often (though not covered in my stats class), I use a reasonable amount of linear algebra for modeling purposes. Matrices can be really powerful ways of manipulating lots of data.

  10. #10 fijimermaid
    May 26, 2007

    1. Yes, I study functional morphology.

    2. Three semesters of calculus, two semesters of statistics, differential equations, linear algebra.

    3. I use all of it almost every day.

    4. I wish I had studied number theory. Mostly because it seems cool.

    5. My research focuses on using physics to understand biological structures and behavior, so calculus is (obviously) central to being able to understand and use classical mechanics. Linear algebra does help a lot when trying to deal with lots of data, and statistics is important when communicating your results to others.

  11. #11 TheBrummell
    May 27, 2007

    Hi Sandra, this is the first time I’ve wandered over here. Very interesting questions!

    My answers are here.

  12. #12 coturnix
    May 27, 2007

    Well, my educational background is quite foreign and I had most of algebra, geometry and calculus in high school. I had stats in vet school. Then later, in the USA, I had stats in grad school and took an upper-level grad school in modelling biological oscillations. I also sat in a course in non-linear dynamics but that was over my head (and taught in a typical math manner – back to the class, right hand writes, left hand wipes).

  13. #13 llewelly
    June 1, 2007

    Calculus is a great deal of very good algebra practice.
    As a software developer, I’ve seldom needed calculus outside of game and graphics programming. But the additional algebra reinforcement I got with calculus is useful constantly.
    As non-biologist, I imagine biology is similar – not a lot of need for calculus itself, but plenty of need for algebra, and thus for the algebra practice that comes with calculus.

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    December 30, 2008

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