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Bio Students Get By With Minimal Math Requirements

By Claire G. Friedman and Joshua D. Gottlieb, Crimson Staff Writers

As Harvard faculty continue to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary study, some biology students are learning the hard way that one field is often not enough.

Some biology students say that their concentration’s mathematics requirements failed to prepare them for advanced work in biology.

And their instructors agree that now, more than ever, new advances in biology require a solid background in mathematics.

“Biology is becoming a quantitative science, where not only analysis but also theory and predictions require use of sophisticated use of sophisticated mathematical analysis,” says Maria A. Neimark, a TF for MCB 111, “Mathematics in Biology.”

Tarr Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) Markus Mesiter, who teaches MCB 111 says that biology students generally don’t know enough mathematics.

“They usually get stuck at the simple mathematical concepts, and there’s little opportunity to rise beyond that,” he says.


The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published a report last year recommending a comprehensive mathematics curriculum for biology students.

The NAS prescribed what Harvard professors say is substantially more math than the College requires.

“Biology students should be prepared to carry out in silico (computer) experiments to compliment in vitro and in vivo experiments,” NAS reports.

Among other concepts, the report indicates that students should know multi-variable calculus, linear algebra, probability and statistics and some computer science.

Harvard still only requires its biology concentrators to complete Mathematics 1b—the equivalent of AP Calculus BC.

Even for honors biology concentrators, Harvard requires only one additional math course beyond 1b.

Scientists say the field of biology is no longer so forgiving.

Biology concentrator Eric M. Black ’04, says his thesis on the neurobiology of aggression involves a significant amount of math.

“While [math] may not be important in memorizing trivial facts, it’s definitely important when trying to synthesize information and make sense out of experimental data,” he says.

Zachary S. Pitkow, a graduate student in Meister’s lab, says that math is crucial to practicing and understanding science.

“The kind of math you know determines the kind of questions you can ask and answer,” he says. “So some people, with very little math, will ask and answer more biological kinds of questions—more qualitative questions.”

Nevertheless, Pitkow says that even qualitative biologists need to be able to use basic statistics.

“Even if you answer a biological question, you have to be able to justify if your findings are significant,” Pitkow says.

The inadequacy of undergraduate math requirements for biology concentrators often becomes apparent when concentrators attempt to complete their theses.

“I wish I had taken stat[istics],” biology concentrator Elizabeth V. Hallinan ’04 wrote in an e-mail. “I am doing a thesis in a psych[ology] lab and my advisors basically walk me through how they analyze the data because I don’t have any stat[istics] background.”

Biology concentrator David K. Lee ’04 is conducting his molecular biology thesis work at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

“My dislike of math almost kept me from Biology,” Lee says. “Working on my thesis, I’ve realized that math is a lot more important than [it] initially seems.”


Higgins Professor of Biology Daniel L. Hartl says biology students’ problems with math don’t just stem from a lack of knowledge on the subject.

“My main problem in teaching probability and statistics in BS50 is not so much lack of background,” Hartl wrote in an e-mail, “but mathophobia—the fear that many students have that they will not understand anything with a mathematical content no matter how hard they try.”

“What I actually teach is pretty easy,” Hartl says. “But if you approach it thinking that it’s impossible, well, then you never really give yourself a chance.”

Harvard courses have ventured into the realm of mathematical biology, but with mixed success.

Bence P. Olveczky, who was a Teaching Fellow (TF) for MCB 138, “Function of Neural Systems,” says that his some of his students struggled with the course’s mathematical concepts.

“It wasn’t that math intensive,” Olveczky says. “I wouldn’t consider it so [mathematical], but [the students in the class] certainly did.”


Although Harvard College is in the midst of a curricular review, the review is not currently addressing the specific requirements of individual departments, according to Associate Dean of the College Jeffrey Wolcowitz.

“The curricular review is not looking at this stage at specific concentrations but rather at the framework for concentrations,” Associate Dean of the College Jeffrey Wolcowitz says.

While there is no indication that biology concentration requirements will be changed, the curricular review will look at the importance of interdisciplinary study.

“We’ve identified science education as one of the themes [of the curricular review],” Wolcowitz says. “We’ve identified cross-disciplinary work as one of the themes. How those themes interact may not happen in this phase of the curricular review.”

—Staff writer Claire G. Friedman can be reached at

—Staff writer Joshua D. Gottlieb can be reached at

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