Numbers are up

November 16, 2011
by Stephen Curry

First of all – following on from the last post, many congratulations to the Imperial College team for their successes in the Grand Final of the iGEM competition in Boston, in which they were runners-up. What a fantastic achievement!

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to see the team’s talk before they left of the US and was mightily impressed. Not just by the quality of the work in the project and the presentation, but also by the inclusion of some maths in their analyses, which was used to model the rate of production of plant growth hormones by their engineered bacteria.

First order differential equations may cause some biology and biochemistry students to blanche but it’s all a matter of having an appropriate introduction. Maths is an inescapable part of the modern life sciences and so is being given more attention. For more background on this, have a look at this article by me in the Times Higher Education magazine.

Although we do not ask for A level maths as an entry requirement, we feel it is still important that our students learn to see the value of the discipline in biology and biochemistry. The question is: what is the best way to go about that?

I popped into one of the maths tutorials that we run for first year biochemists the other week to see how they were getting on with practice in calculus. Pretty well, it seemed to me. But what do you think? I would be interested to know your views the subject.

In the meantime, have a look at a recent article on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian. It shows very nicely how even a modest understanding of maths can prevent you from drawing the wrong conclusion from your data. If you’d like to read more of Dr Goldacre’s output, I can recommend his Bad Science book, which is currently going cheap in its Kindle incarnation. It’s not very mathsy but is very good on the question of evidence.

Update (17th Nov, 16:16): A piece in today’s Guardian about plans for changing maths education in schools.

 

 

 

One Response to “Numbers are up”

  1. Laurence says:

    I read the article and it’s certainly true that having a mathematical background can help a lot in understanding many of the basic principles underpinning biochemistry. I personally find myself in the middle ground, having done AS level maths but not having done it in over two years. I’ve found not so much a problem with understanding the maths given, but in being able to manipulate it to comprehend the area better (such as in the protein and enzymes module in the first year). Most of the maths required isn’t generally too challenging, but I’ve found that it takes consistent practice to keep the same level of maths up (which I haven’t really had time for).
    RE the first year tutorials, they were helpful in refreshing basic mathematical principles, but were entirely detached from its application in the course (maybe that has changed since last year).

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