“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.