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Employing Mathematics in Biology

An interview with John Jungck, Beloit College

A lot of mathematicians say that biology students cannot do algebra, so how can they do scientific modeling? Others acknowledge that biology students often don't have great algebra skills, but feel that in this age of computers and graphing calculators weakness in algebra should not prevent them from moving ahead. What's your opinion about how much algebra biology students really need?

I believe that biology students need the capability of two years of high school algebra at an automatic level. Solving two equations for two unknowns seems to be their greatest stumbling block, but most can do it if you regularly expect it of them. In terms of computers or calculators, I am prepared to say that students who use them for calculus and matrix algebra applied to biology are more likely to develop some intuition for modelling than if we always do just linear transformations.

However, I am also a great believer in the importance of other parts of mathematics. Some of the most appropriate mathematics examples for beginning biology students come from topology, geometry (Euclidean, spherical, and fractal), graph theory, knot theory, combinatorics, and statistics more than from calculus--because biologists are frequently more concerned about relations than about functions. Of course, I know that I am in a minority here.

Interdisciplinary issues rarely motivate typical mathematics teachers who are used to traditional goals such as solving equations and constructing graphs. Similarly, interdisciplinary approaches in science often involve a blend of biology and chemistry, or physics and biology, but rarely do they mix science and mathematics as equals. Any thoughts on this dilemma?

While I have high expectations for students, I believe that the greater problem is how we get our biology colleagues comfortable with mathematics. Additionally, I believe we need to converse with those in other disciplines for mutual education. Most mathematicians have had little or no science. When I surveyed many mathematics teachers in summer institutes, in general, they had had just one term of introductory physics (which was mostly calculus) and seldom any biology.

Many students who are interested in science often select biology precisely because it requires less mathematical sophistication than the other natural sciences. Is this image of biology accurate, or might it be based on an out-dated view of the subject?

I believe that mathematics plays five distinct and important roles in undergraduate biological education:

We can help students deal more effectively with the massive explosion in technical information by privileging curricular reform that favors problem solving and collaborative learning and by sharing elegant, robust mathematical approaches. (I have elaborated on some of these issues in a recent paper "Ten Equation that Changed Biology: Mathematics in Problem-Solving Biology Curricula," Bioscene: The Journal of College Biology Teaching, 23:1 (May 1997) 11-36.)

John R. Jungck is Professor of Biology at Beloit College in Wisconsin and director of the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium. He can be reached by e-mail at jungck@beloit.edu.

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Last Update: July 7, 1997