To analyze data, biologists use statistics. The tools of calculus help them arrive at the rates of diffusion across cell membranes, the weights of proteins, and animal population models. But these aren’t the kinds of examples likely to land on the chalkboard in a typical college math course. "Many of the examples used in calculus are based on physics or engineering," says Hal White, a biochemist at the University of Delaware and the university’s HHMI program director. As a result, undergraduate biology students often struggle to see how math relates to their field at a time when biological research is increasingly quantitative, White says.
With support from HHMI, Delaware has set up a section of the required core calculus course. It covers the same material as the other sections but is punctuated by examples that are relevant to what the students are learning in their biology courses. The university has also established a quantitative biology major in the mathematics department for students who are equally interested in biology and math. They take classes in both departments and tackle cross-disciplinary problems, such as how an egg—with an impressive degree of mathematical precision—blocks multiple sperm from entering at the same time.
The other part of the equation is integrating more math into biology classes. "One of the difficulties that we have is, oftentimes, the TAs or faculty teaching these courses don't feel comfortable with the math, so it's often a self-perpetuating problem," says White. The university will bring in students with a math background to help biology students analyze their data in advanced laboratory classes. These labs have no predetermined outcome, so students must draw on mathematical concepts and statistical techniques to interpret the results of their experiments. "I think if biology students become more aware of how mathematics are used in biology and graduate with a sense that they're not afraid of mathematics, that would be a great success," says White.
White and his colleagues will share these resources through an annual quantitative biology summer institute run by Delaware, Emory University, the University of Arizona, and a consortium of other institutions.