Biologist Seeks Understanding Mathematician


"I have found that [if you become] known in biology as somebody who can talk to [biologists], you become incredibly popular," says Professor Jaroslav Stark of the Mathematics Department at Imperial College London. With opportunities at the interface between maths and biology blossoming, there's a shortage of mathematicians with an understanding of biology and good communication skills. So do the maths. ... Both disciplines have everything to gain from it.

"Biologists are deluged with masses of data, and they are not trained in coping with it," says Stark. Whether you are studying the expression of thousands of genes simultaneously using DNA microarrays, or the interaction of multiple molecules to understand intercellular signalling, the skills that will help you understand your findings are statistics, computational techniques, and modelling--so all you really need is a mathematician.

New Set of Problems for Mathematicians

But what's in it for mathematicians? "It depends on the sort of person you are," says Stark. "Some people ... are motivated by the beauty and the difficulty of maths. To them I would say biology has brought to maths a whole new series of problems mathematicians do not know how to solve." The challenges are such that Stark feels the mathematical models in use are simply inadequate. "It would be very interesting if we got [pure mathematicians] to think up completely new approaches to the problem outside the mainstream," says Stark.

As for those interested in the applications of maths, they will find within biology unspoilt areas to explore. Fluid dynamics and pattern formation, for example, are well-developed areas, leaving less space for young scientists to make a big impact. "I would encourage them to pursue other fields where the opportunities are much greater," recommends Stark. "People who have mathematical, computational, and statistical skills, [and] establish a collaboration and work on real biological problems, have the chance of doing some very, very significant things for human welfare," he says.

Another great challenge, and of real benefit to the mathematical sciences, may be the opportunity to bridge statistics and applied mathematics. "One of the really sad things about the development of mathematics over the last century is that statistics and applied mathematics have really separated from each other," explains Stark. So much so that if biologists today ask for help in analysing their data, they are likely to get either a statistically correct model with simple behaviour or a dynamically complex model that may shed more insight into the biological problem based on very naïve statistics. Interestingly, biology requires a mixture of both and may offer a common ground to help reunite the two.

A more tangible benefit, at least for the individual, may be the financial rewards biology has to offer to mathematicians. "When I am looking for a postdoc, I put a starting salary for this kind of job 3 to 4 degrees higher than for ordinary mathematics postdocs, because I know it's going to be very difficult to find good people," says Stark. The same is true for PhD students, who can hope for up to £15,000 a year tax-free, and in the industrial sector, especially in the pharmaceutical companies. What's more, scientists working on interdisciplinary projects generally find it easier to fund their work, given the Research Councils' current emphasis on this type of research, suggests Stark.

Still Need to Communicate With Biologists

But even though you may have modelling and statistical skills under your belt, they won't guarantee your success at the mathematics-biology interface. "The big problem with mathematics is that you have to be able to communicate with people using it," says Stark. To him there is a real need for mathematicians who are able to communicate in such a way that both mathematicians and biologists understand each other, respect each others' needs, and get something in return.

So how can you gain such sensitivity? If you are considering doing a PhD, one of the six new interdisciplinary doctoral training centres ( University College London, Imperial College London, the University of Strathclyde, the University of Warwick, a consortium made up of the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield, and finally Oxford University) supported by the EPSRC may be a good choice. The first year of their 4-year training programmes has been designed to give students the skills necessary to embark on an interdisciplinary project. Such programmes also allow biologists to branch out. "It is generally a more difficult transition, but it is not impossible," says Stark.

If you already hold a PhD, you may still be able to enrol in that first year of training and then do a relevant master's degree elsewhere. Alternatively, you may want to look into fellowship schemes such as the MRC's Discipline Hopping Awards or EPSRC's Encouraging Postdoctoral Mobility Between Disciplines Fellowships for other training opportunities. It is also always worth checking what is available within your own institution. Warwick University, for example, has set up a specific training programme.

"It doesn't matter if it's really formal or informal," says Stark, "but you need people who are communicating closely and working towards a common goal." As it happens, opportunities to work in an environment where mathematicians and biologists interact are mushrooming. Just a couple of months ago Imperial College itself announced the opening of a new international Institute of Mathematical Sciences, where pure maths will cohabit with mathematics applied to various disciplines. The creation of the new institute stems "from the realisation that the deeper you get into a subject, the greater the need for mathematical applications," explains Philip Hall, professor of applied mathematics, former head of the mathematics department, and now first director of the centre.

Of the five interdisciplinary programmes that will be launched initially, two will be related to biology, tackling issues such as biostatistics, epidemiology, cellular interactions, and gene sequencing. "We expect them to run for 5 years, each being reviewed after 3 years," says Hall. "It may be that we'll solve [the mathematical problem] before or realise it can't be solved."

The new institute, to be fully operational in May 2005, has already secured £3 million funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for refurbishment, and funds for research will be raised through grant applications starting this September. An estimated 50 to 60 new staff will be employed, of which 30 to 35 are expected to be postdocs and 15 to 20 PhD students. Multidisciplinary teams will be made up from scientists with a strong mathematical training and researchers from other disciplines who recognise the value of maths.

"They will be working at the interface and benefit from each other," says Hall. Interdisciplinarity and collaboration will be further enhanced through training, seminars, workshops discussing problems that need solving, visits by senior scientists, and summer schools that will bring postgraduate and postdocs from all over the world to London.

The institute intends to attract the best young researchers through the launch of new fellowships, to be advertised this autumn. These will be designed for freshly graduated PhDs, as when they are looking for a first postdoc "is the best time to get somebody to switch" to another field, says Hall. So what will the institute be looking for in its applicants? "You will have to demonstrate a strong training in research and a willingness to become broader," says Hall. And to convince Stark, who will be involved in one of the projects at the new institute, "you will also need passion, and the ability and willingness to communicate."

If you are interested in applying for a position or fellowship at the institute or would like to take part in a summer school, please contact Professor Hall.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers