Fourth Floor Studio

May 24, 2007

Math(s) for biologists

Filed under: biologists, geekery, science, scientists — chris @ 9:54 am

I’ll break radio silence briefly to catch a meme wave from Neil (via RPM, Deepak and Keith). I’ve disguised my rant as answers to Sandra‘s questions (evil chuckle). Usual grain of salt provisos apply…

1. Are you a biologist, if so what kind?

Yes, I am – the kind that answers biological questions. Is there another kind? I’m with Neil on this one: the world is divided very sharply into people who want to know how it works, and everyone else. I’d call the former scientists (or philosophers in the most classical sense), and everyone else … well, let’s just call them everyone else (or the great unwashed, if you prefer). I trained as a biochemist/molecular biologist (BSc) and mol bio/genetics/bioinformatics (PhD). If pressed, I’d consider myself a geneticist/genomicist. Is that even a word?

2. What math did you take in college?

None. Literally. My university offered an elective course in basic maths for those without maths A-level (years 10-12). That was it. There was some incidental exposure to elementary calculus when discussing reaction kinetics, and some half-arsed explanations of Fourier transforms during mass spec/NMR pracs, but that was it. Shocking, isn’t it, considering it’s one of the UK’s top three universities?

3. What math do you use?

Basic stats, linear algebra, multivariate statistics, graph theory.
4. What math do you wish you’d studied?

All of the above, plus a solid grounding in basic stats. It still stuns me, for instance, that highly qualified people in my field have no concept of experimental design. Not at the most basic level of calculating how many treatment groups of a given size one would need to be able to measure a trait of a given variance. Go ahead: ask someone doing expression studies whether it’s better to query ten samples with two replicates each, or twenty samples once, and watch the confusion spread. Ask one of the authors of myriad genetic studies claiming to identify novel genetic variants for disease X in a minuscule sample, with no power to detect that effect size and (obviously) no replication in independent samples. Really – ask them the next time they get up at the conference you’re attending and shovel another load of BS onto the scientific literature.

5. How do you use math in your job (or research)?

To design and interpret data, establish trends and siginificance of results, with which I can test the hypothesis that motivated the experiment, refine it and design the next experiment. Round these parts, we call it the scientific method.


1 Comment »

  1. Continues to laugh. I think we should have a new meme on the scientific method

    Comment by Deepak — May 24, 2007 @ 10:11 am

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