To most people, biology and mathematics probably seem like two completely different disciplines. Biology is the scientific study of living things; mathematics is the study of quantities, patterns, and relationships between quantities. A knowledge of math can help a biologist, however, just as understanding biology may be useful to mathematicians. Biologists collect large quantities of data about animals, plants, or microbes, but they may not have the necessary skills to analyze the data properly. Mathematicians know how to analyze data, but they often lack sufficient knowledge of biology to make their analysis of biological data meaningful.
As the biologist’s tools for making observations and collecting data improve, there is a growing need for people who are trained in both biology and mathematics. Math can be useful in almost any area of biology as well as in allied sciences like medicine and agriculture. Undergraduate math courses are helpful for anyone who enters the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in biology. They are essential for people who plan to get an advanced degree and seek a career involving both subjects. These careers include biostatistics, epidemiology, bioinformatics, mathematical biology, and population ecology.
A knowledge of mathematical processes and experience in mathematical reasoning are necessary for someone hoping to enter a biology career that involves math. However, in the workforce math calculations will probably be done by computer software. Therefore, in addition to studying math, someone hoping to have a career that combines biology and mathematics needs to gain experience in using computers.
Practice in using different operating systems and different types of software will be useful, especially if the systems and software are popular in science. Even if the software that is used in school or at home is not identical to that likely to be used in a career, a person’s prior experience will be helpful.
Biostatistics is the use of statistical methods to help researchers define a problem that needs to be solved, gather data, analyze the data, draw conclusions, and publish their results. It’s sometimes known as biometry. Biostatisticians commonly work in the fields of medicine, public health, biology, agriculture, and forestry. They collect data from populations and look for meaning in the data.
Here are some examples of questions that biostatisticians might refine and then investigate:
- Does coffee reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes?
- Does a specific medication lower the LDL cholesterol level in the blood?
- Does walking improve lower body strength in seniors?
- Does the presence of a certain pesticide on produce increase the risk of cancer?
- Does a specific nutrient increase the lifespan of AIDS patients?
When we read the results of clinical trials telling us that a particular nutrient or medication is beneficial or detrimental in some way, the conclusion has been reached by statistical analysis.
It’s possible to get a bachelor’s degree in biostatistics, but most jobs in the field require that a student attends graduate school to get a master’s degree or a PhD. In addition to majoring in biostatistics as an undergrad, students can also qualify for graduate school by studying for a math degree and including biology courses in their studies or by studying for a biology degree and taking lots of math courses. Someone interested in a biostatistics career should check the postgraduate program of their choice to discover which math courses they should take as an undergrad and to find out whether a math degree or a biology degree is preferred as an entrance requirement.
Epidemiology is the study of the causes, distribution, and solutions for health-related events and diseases in populations. An epidemiologist is often referred to as a “medical detective”. He or she tries to find out why a health-related event or disease has appeared in a community, how it’s being spread, why it occurs in some people or areas and not in others, and how it can be corrected, stopped, and prevented. A “health-related event” could be smoking, the use of a certain drug, a nutrient deficiency, or obesity, for example. Examples of infectious diseases that might be investigated include hepatitis A, AIDS, and influenza.
Epidemiologists don’t have to be medical doctors, although some are. Medical personnel perform diagnostic tests and treatments and give the epidemiologists data that they need for their investigation and analysis.
In general, a master’s degree in epidemiology is required in order to work in the field, or a PhD for some jobs. Epidemiologists use computers and statistical techniques in their jobs, so undergrads need to take biology, math, and computer courses to prepare for their postgraduate studies.
Bioinformatics is the management and analysis of information in biology or medicine with the aid of a computer. It’s an interdisciplinary subject that requires a knowledge of biology, math, computer science, and information technology.
Bioinformatics is often used in the fields of molecular biology and genetics. As scientists are gathering more information about genomes and the molecules in cells, bioinformatics is becoming increasingly important in dealing with the data. (A “genome” is the complete genetic information of an organism.)
Computers not only store information in databases but also allow researchers around the world to access the data that they need, such as the complicated structure of a particular protein or the gene map for a chromosome. A “gene map” indicates where specific genes are located on chromosomes. The data can be extremely useful. For example, it’s helping scientists to understand the processes that occur in cells during disease.
Just as in biostatistics and epidemiology, while collecting data in bioinformatics is important, it’s not the only goal of the discipline. Interpreting the data is very important. New math formulas and algorithms are being designed to extract meaning from the data. An “algorithm” is the series of steps that a computer performs as it carries out its programmed task.
People who want to work in the bioinformatics field need at least a master’s degree, but a PhD degree is preferable.
An exciting area of bioinformatics is the use of in silico experiments. This term is derived from the names of the two main types of biology experiments. In vivo experiments are done in living things; in vitro experiments are done in laboratory equipment. The term “vivo” means “living” in Latin, while “vitro” means “glass”, which refers to the glassware used in experiments. The word “silico” refers to the silicon chips in computers. In silico biology experiments involve the analysis of stored data by a computer and the use of computer simulations and models.
Mathematical biology is sometimes known as biomathematics. Like bioinformatics, it’s an interdisciplinary field involving biology, math, and the use of computers. Biomathematicians use mathematical models to explain biological phenomena. For example, they are trying to create models that describe wound healing, tumor behavior, the behavior of social insects, the spread of infectious diseases, and the movement of cells.
If mathematical models are accurate, they can be used to make predictions. They may enable us to discover things that we didn’t know about a natural phenomenon. Parameters can be altered and the results observed sooner in a mathematical model created on a computer than when using live organisms or their cells. In some cases the models are already useful. They should become even more helpful as we discover further information about the phenomena that they describe and then update the models. The continuing increase in computer abilities should be very beneficial in both bioinformatics and mathematical biology.
People who want to work in the field of mathematical biology need an advanced degree in the field.
Population ecology is a branch of biology that is concerned with the size, structure, and dynamics of populations. Population ecologists study the interactions between a group of organisms and both their living and nonliving environment. They look for factors that control the population’s size, density, and growth. They examine the population makeup with respect to gender and age and determine the birth rate, death rate, immigration rate, and emigration rate. They also examine factors such as the average age at which a female gives birth and the average number of babies born per female. The researchers record data in the field and then analyze it later.
A population ecologist is primarily a biologist but has a good knowledge of statistics and math. He or she must enjoy field work, which may sometimes take place in unpleasant conditions, and must be comfortable using computers and appropriate software. In addition, like all the careers described in this article, the ecologist will need to present his or her discoveries to other people, usually in written form, so English courses are important for undergrads.
It’s possible to get a job related to population ecology with a bachelor’s degree, but someone is far more likely to get the job that they want with a postgraduate degree.
If you’re an undergrad at a college or university and are majoring in biology, it’s a good idea to include both math and computer science in your studies. You’ll probably be required to take introductory courses in these areas. If you want the greatest number of career options, however, you should keep taking appropriate math and computer science courses for as long as you can fit them into your schedule. A good knowledge of these subjects will be helpful if you want to find a job when you’ve obtained your bachelor’s degree in biology.
If you’re aiming for a career that involves both biology and math, or if you’re thinking of studying for this career at graduate school, it’s very important that you take lots of math courses as an undergrad as well as biology ones. It’s also important that you check the requirements of several postgraduate institutions so that you choose the right type and number of courses for your undergrad studies.
Some universities offer undergraduate degrees in one or more of the specialities described in this article. This is another factor for a student to consider when choosing courses to take or a program to follow.
It’s an exciting time for students who like both biology and math. The union of the two subjects is progressing rapidly, offering the potential for some very interesting and important job opportunities for qualified people.
How to Prepare for a Career in Biostatistics from the American Statistical Association
Information about epidemiologists from the Bureau of Labor Statistics
Facts about careers in bioinformatics from the International Society for Computational Biology
Information about biomathematics from North Carolina State University
Population ecology information from Nature Education