Important to expose Biology students to Maths

Important to expose Biology students to Maths

The so called ‘medical’ stream students had no exposure to mathematics beyond the 10th grade.

Some days ago, I had occasion to interact with a group of recently graduated high school students who had enrolled as freshmen at a leading university situated in the capital city of a northern state. When I asked these enthusiastic students about their high school academic backgrounds I received two standard responses; they claimed they were either from the ‘medical’ stream or the ‘non-medical’ stream.

The so called ‘medical’ stream students had no exposure to mathematics beyond the 10th grade. On further questioning, I learnt that they were so classified according to whether they chose or did not choose biology as a subject of study. I had faced similar situations many years ago when I was myself a school student. In my final year high school class, I was the only student who had chosen both biology and mathematics. I had had to face many odd questions. I was a bit surprised that the situation had not changed much after all these decades.

There are several points of major concern that arise from such a situation. To begin with, we as a nation are making a fundamental error in not exposing our biology school students to mathematics. This policy has had and shall continue to have disastrous results for these young minds and consequently for the wellbeing of our nation. Let me explain what I mean.

There is hardly any high school student who has not heard of Gregor Mendel. The enormously important field of genetics owes its existence to the work of Mendel. The reasons why Mendel could produce his fundamental laws of inheritance that have changed the world lie in the fact that he knew some basic school level mathematical probability and because he was a good gardener who could handle data.

There is at this point of time hardly any realm of endeavour in the life sciences that does not seem to connect with some aspect of data and mathematics. At the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Centre at Houston, US, I estimate that a large number of scientists who work there are either mathematical scientists or information technology experts.

Let us contrast this with the situation that prevails in so many of our leading institutions of medicine and biology. I have been closely connected with some of these institutions. I have to admit sadly that I have not been able to generate the institutional conviction in them so as to enable them to engender greater interaction between the life sciences and the quantitative and mathematical sciences.

Is it thus a surprise that we do not produce the kind of knowledge and ideas in the life sciences that could fetch us economic benefits and even scientific advantages? To further bolster my case, I cite some very important and recent research in cell biology that has made important use of mathematics. Even in the study of animal gaits, it has been found that mathematics plays a critical role.

Here is my final clincher argument for exposing school students to mathematics with biology. Some years ago, I had requested a distinguished visiting mathematical biologist from the US to speak to grade six school students about his research. He was reluctant to begin with, but with much prodding from me he managed to explain his advanced mathematical ideas and the attendant biology in lucid ways to the sixth graders.

On that occasion I witnessed that the entire class of about 40 students were participating in a highly animated and intelligent manner. When the visiting scientist returned after extended interactions with scientists at my university, he sent me an email that the high point of his entire month-long visit was his session with the sixth graders. I rest my case.

Dinesh Singh

Former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University; Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, US

Posts on X: @DineshSinghEDU

The New Indian Express