BIOLOGY’S MATH PROBLEM

Biology desperately needs more mathematicians and computer scientists to make sense of the overwhelming torrents of data that modern experiments produce. Some see it as a potential crisis for the field.

“We need to ready the biological research community for a new reality,” said James Keener, a professor of math at the University of Utah, which happens to be a leader in training data scientists to tackle questions in biology, ecology and medicine.

“No one has enough talent to be able to do everything. We really need to be creating collaborators,” said Keener, who was part of a panel addressing the problem at the annual meeting American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest gathering of scientists, which took place past week in San Jose, California. Frederick Adler, a professor of mathematics and biology at the U, organized the panel on biology’s looming shortage of data scientists.

Nobody’s sure how to squeeze more mathematics and computer science into the training of biologists—or biology into the training of mathematicians. Everybody’s worried about losing students with high-level skills in math and computer science to Wall Street firms and technology giants such as Google.

It’s a thorny problem made worse at many universities by the barriers that get in the way of collaborations across disciplines in research and teaching. “In many instances, it’s a huge volunteer effort, and faculty involved are not getting credit in their academic department for all of this interdisciplinary work,” said Vicki Chandler of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

At the U, a crew of biology-minded mathematicians have overcome many of the hurdles over the past decade. The Mathematical Biology Research Program has grown to include five mathematics professors, four post-doctoral fellows, 28 associated life sciences faculty and is now training about 40 graduate students. The research group formed the Center for Quantitative Biology, directed by Adler, to foster collaborations, host visiting scientists and help support grad students.

“We have established a culture where biology drives the math,” Keener told the audience at the AAAS meeting. “I think we are beginning to make difference.” The program’s doctoral graduates are landing tenure-track positions combining math and biology, he said.

Louis Gross, a professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and mathematics at the University of Tennessee, said: “The question is how do you encourage more of this program building.”