Published: Tue 11 September 2012
C. Titus Brown
Try out this thought experiment.
Suppose you are a bio professor, and a grad student came to you and
said, "I'm trying to figure out what classes to take, and there're
all these math, modeling, and computational courses that I could
take. But I just don't think that math or modeling or computation
is going to be that important in my future research work. What
I really want to do is focus on the core biology --
I need to know, and those are the classes I want to take. This math
and computing stuff is just irrelevant."
In a non-scientific poll of 5 bio professors, everyone agrees that
that graduate student is insane. Obviously the future of biology
research includes genomics and models.
And yet, our graduate programs in biology essentially
this by simply not offering good math, modeling, and computing
courses at an intro level for biology graduate students.
As Greg Wilson likes to point out whenever anyone suggests
adding something to the core Software Carpentry, though, the
question isn't "what should we add?" but "what should we
take out?" Do we really want to force bio grad students into
the same kind of course-heavy schedule that physicists and engineers
I have to admit I don't want bio grad school to be course heavy. But
I'm guessing that a lot of the necessary biology behind their research
will be picked up in the course of that research. So maybe it's not
too important to teach them some of their basic biology. Or at least
we shouldn't require them to learn stuff they're so obviously going to
need to know that they will pick it up on their own, anyway.
In fact, I think it's pretty obvious that it is
far more important
to expose grad students to important things that they won't be able
to learn in their research labs. Which suggests a pretty interesting
approach to curriculum design...
Regardless, at the moment I think we're doing a massive disservice to
the next generation of biology researchers by failing to teach them
math, modeling, and computing. You might not think that should matter
much to you, but note that these are also the people who are going to
be doing the basic bio/biotech research to cure cancer, fight disease,
and otherwise make your life better. So you might actually care even
not a professor.
p.s. Yes, our undergraduate bio curriculum is even more problematic,
but that has to service people with a very broad range of career
goals. I think the same point can be made, but it's harder.