Over the past four years, advanced math students at the University of Arizona have been wrestling with biology in their calculus and statistics courses: calculating drug accumulation rates and analyzing child development trends, while also grappling concepts traditionally in their math courses. Over the next four years, some introductory biology students are going to find far more math mixed in with their biology too.
It’s part of a multiyear effort to make biology teaching more quantitative and problem based and to help math students see how their problem-solving and quantitative skills can be applied to complex biological questions. Arizona’s BioMath program—an effort to revise coursework and support research at the interface of biology and math—is driven by the increasing complexity of biology itself.
Recent technological advances have increased the amount of data that labs are producing. Genomics and proteomics research, for example, are particularly data intensive. Interpreting that information requires the skills that BioMath is striving to teach its students, says Roy Parker, an HHMI investigator and the HHMI program director. “The combination of large data sets and very complex problems requires that you know how to conduct sophisticated quantitative analysis,” he says. “That skill will only become more critical in the future.”
With a portion of its the new HHMI grant, the university will add to its BioMath course offerings and provide support to undergraduates doing summer research at the interface of biology and math, working through a successful undergraduate biology research program directed by Carol Bender. But students have already begun doing exactly what BioMath’s developers hope: applying what they learn in the classroom to actual research problems. “Six students who took the [biology-based] statistics course went back to their labs and used what they had learned in class,” says mathematics professor Joe Watkins, who heads the university’s BioMath committee. When those students share their knowledge with their labmates, the culture shift that unites the two disciplines spreads beyond the number of students that BioMath can reach directly. “If you are an 18-year-old biology major, you aren’t that far from your last math class, Watkins says. “They truly understand the importance of math to biology.”