Bio Students Get By With Minimal Math Requirements

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.