What's the matter with bio grad school?

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 -- that's what 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 dictate 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 have?

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 if you're 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.

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