To biologists – why we should love math

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The mention of mathematics often evokes mixed emotions among biologists. While some embrace it as a powerful tool, most merely view it as a black box for their collaborators to navigate for them or as intimidating and unrelated to their study. However, as a Biology PhD student, I firmly believe that math is not scary and an essential and accessible language for understanding the intricacies of life.

In this blog post, I aim to debunk the notion that math is daunting for biologists and highlight its importance in biological research.

Biology is math

Biology is just really, really hard math. In arguing for this point, I start with the classic notion that math is the basis of physics, which is the basis of chemistry, which is the basis of biology:

  • When we talk about biology or medicine, we talk about things like how DNA ultimately leads to the production of proteins or about how the human body might react to some drug. In biology, we learn of some entity such as RNA and of other entities such as ribosomes whose function is to take something like RNA and produce proteins.
  • When we talk about math or physics, we talk about things like equations, mathematical logic, and esoteric concepts composed of incomprehensible words. In math we learn of some entity such as a plot or formula and of other entities such as integrals whose function is to take something like a formula and produce the area under the curve.

And in case you were wondering, yes the parallel between the sentence structures is intentional and absolutely my point. Despite the classic biologists' attempt to distance themselves from math in any shape possible, the rigor and methodical approach by which we study and understand biology is inherently the same sort of methodical logic that math is built upon. And just as math requires the memorization and understanding of potentially unintuitive concepts, so does biology (who would’ve thought that you need to get rid of connections between neurons sometimes to make better memory?). If you’re still not convinced, I want to point out that you’re reading this blog post with an insanely complicated computer called your brain. The brain and neuroscience is often times a very clear way to appreciate the intricacies and math that is inherent to biology. However, the rest of biology is also composed of equally complex interactions in the form of the near-infinite combinations and interactions of biomolecules. Which brings me to… 

The synergy between biology and math

At this point I have to admit, I am a neuroscientist and a bioinformatician. I am in some of the computational biology fields and with it, I understand I have a lot of bias within this topic. But it is also because of my place in computational biology that I can properly celebrate how wonderfully powerful the synergy between biology and math is. The advent of high-throughput technologies has generated enormous amounts of biological data. Bioinformatics, a field at the intersection of biology and mathematics, plays a pivotal role in managing, analyzing, and interpreting this wealth of information. Biologists proficient in math can leverage computational tools, algorithms, and statistical techniques to uncover patterns in genomic data, identify gene functions, and explore evolutionary relationships. Math empowers biologists to extract valuable knowledge from vast datasets. Mathematics bring in the ability to model and analyze, while biology brings domain-specific knowledge and experimental insights.

Statistics – it’s just how science is done

Biology (or any science for that matter) just cannot be done without statistics. Statistical analysis lies at the core of biological research. From analyzing genetic data to assessing the significance of experimental results, statistical methods help biologists draw reliable conclusions from their data. Understanding statistical concepts empowers researchers to choose appropriate experimental designs, sample sizes, and data analysis techniques, ensuring robust and reproducible findings. By embracing math, biologists can navigate the vast sea of biological data with confidence.

The notion that math is scary for biologists is a misconception that needs to be debunked.

Math is not only deeply intertwined with biology but is also an essential tool for understanding and advancing our knowledge of life. The parallels between the logical reasoning and rigorous methods employed in both fields are undeniable. Biology is, in essence, complex mathematics, with intricate interactions and networks of biomolecules shaping the fundamental processes of life. So, let us break free from the notion that math is scary, and instead, embrace it as an indispensable and accessible language that enriches our understanding of the living world. By recognizing the profound synergy between biology and math, we can pave the way for exciting discoveries and make meaningful contributions to the field of biology.

Michael is a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience and Genomics at Harvard University. His current focus is on developing cutting-edge research technologies for fellow scientists.

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