[Paleopsych] CHE: Mathematics and Biology: New Challenges for Both Disciplines

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Mathematics and Biology: New Challenges for Both Disciplines
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.4


    For most of the 20th century, mathematics was seen as a close and
    natural partner of physics and engineering. Secondary and
    postsecondary mathematics educators channeled the mainstream of their
    programs to nourish the roots of the physical sciences. From
    trigonometry through calculus and on into advanced calculus and
    differential equations, mathematical study from 10th grade through
    sophomore year in college was designed to support the parallel
    curriculum in engineering and physics.

    Now, however, biology has replaced physics as the crucible of
    innovation -- not only in science, but also in mathematics. The
    mathematics involved in understanding the folding of proteins, the
    causes of heart attacks, and the spread of epidemics is as deep,
    elegant, and beautiful as the mathematics of relativity, quantum
    mechanics, and subatomic particles. As John H. Ewing, executive
    director of the American Mathematical Society, has noted, biology is
    "the next big thing in mathematics."

    Similarly, some argue that mathematics is the next big thing in
    biology. Eric S. Lander, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts
    Institute of Technology, speaks of "biology as information," as a vast
    library filled with the "laboratory notebooks" of evolution, one for
    every species, with chapters for every tissue, each written in a
    genetic code that can be deciphered only by means of sophisticated
    algorithms. In this new biology, evidence is as often mathematical as
    observational, as often quantitative as descriptive.

    The relatively sudden emergence of biology as the dominant scientific
    partner for mathematics in both research and education has created
    major challenges for both disciplines. Biological research -- and with
    it the multibillion-dollar biotech industry -- is hampered by the lack
    of scientists able to work in teams where both biological and
    mathematical skills are employed. Biology professors need to learn
    about the new quantitative tools while helping students who may have
    assumed that biology was a refuge from mathematics. And mathematics
    professors educated in the physics paradigm face the daunting prospect
    of learning to teach new cross-disciplinary courses awash in
    unfamiliar theories, methodologies, and vocabulary.

    BIO 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research
    Biologists, a 2003 report from the National Research Council, argued
    that as biology becomes more quantitative and as connections between
    the life and physical sciences become deeper, biology itself is being
    transformed from a disciplinary to an interdisciplinary science. In
    contrast, however, "undergraduate biology education has changed
    relatively little," being "geared to the biology of the past, rather
    than to the biology of the present or future."

    Meeting the challenges posed by the new biology will require a
    paradigm shift in undergraduate mathematics. The challenges, which are
    immense, involve:

    Students. Most biology students know too little mathematics, and most
    mathematics students know too little biology. Moreover, career options
    for both groups are becoming increasingly diverse, with many options
    requiring specialized preparation.

    Faculty members. Senior faculty members in mathematics and biology
    were educated in a monodisciplinary culture. Now they have limited
    time, resources, and incentives to learn new areas and develop
    cross-disciplinary professional networks.

    Curriculum. Few established courses and even fewer curricular programs
    focus on the new biology, and biological textbooks and curricula
    generally pay too little attention to the role of mathematical tools.
    Compounding the problem is a lack of widespread agreement on the kinds
    of mathematical knowledge that biologists now need.

    Departments. Most departments lack structural mechanisms to sustain
    new courses, which are often developed by single professors using
    one-time grant support. Too often, departmental reward systems
    reinforce disciplinary boundaries and discourage curricular

    Academic institutions. Administrative structures typically bind
    departments to disciplines, and few mechanisms exist for disseminating
    successful new programs and courses.

    Although many of those challenges represent generic problems facing
    higher education, some are unique to the interface of mathematics and
    biology. They burden colleges and universities in ways that make it
    especially difficult for institutions to confront the urgent challenge
    of educating students for the new biology. And it is indeed urgent.

    Genomics and proteomics display perhaps the highest profile, based on
    their potential for curing genetic diseases. Advances on that frontier
    require computer scientists and mathematicians specially trained in
    bioinformatics to devise and apply algorithms to solve problems that
    have never before been attempted or even contemplated. Even more vital
    -- in this era of mass air travel and virulent strains of flu, to say
    nothing of bioterrorism -- is the work of mathematical modelers who
    invent, explore, and evaluate potential strategies for containing
    epidemics. That is the kind of science possible only with mathematical
    models: Trial and error is too slow and potentially too lethal.

    From visualizing subcellular processes like the misfolding of proteins
    that cause mad-cow disease to studying global environmental issues
    like the effects of atmospheric warming, mathematics is often the only
    tool available for developing hypotheses and anticipating

    The best way to develop the needed cadre of multidisciplinary experts
    is to get mathematics and computer-science students hooked on
    mathematically fascinating biological problems early in their college
    careers. Fortunately many colleges and universities are beginning to
    develop special undergraduate courses, research projects, and joint
    majors to do just that. Many are described in a volume I edited, Math
    & Bio 2010, and the Web site of the Mathematical Association of
    America offers useful links to such efforts (see
    http://www.maa.org/mtc). Case studies and examples contained in (or
    linked to) those resources suggest strategies that higher-education
    administrators may find useful in supporting the new biology on their
    own campuses.

    The era of biology as a safe haven for math avoiders is over. Whether
    they study molecules, cells, or ecosystems, future biologists will
    clearly need to understand and use sophisticated quantitative tools.
    So too will anyone dealing with the societal impact of biology, like
    genetically engineered crops, epidemics, antibiotic-resistant
    path-ogens, and bioterrorism.

    That includes every college student, not just future life scientists
    or health professionals. Citizens who elect legislators, police
    officers who deal with terrorist threats, business leaders who make
    economic decisions, and school-board members who set educational
    policy all need a sound, quantitative understanding of 21st-century

    Lynn Arthur Steen is a professor of mathematics at St. Olaf College.
    This essay is adapted from Math & Bio 2010: Linking Undergraduate
    Disciplines (Mathematical Association of America, 2005), which he

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