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Advice on choosing major: Math vs. Engineering

  1. Jun 12, 2012 #1
    I have posted a couple of times on this forum requesting advice and have found it quite helpful, so here I am again. Right now I am a biological engineering major with minors in math and computational neuroscience, but I am beginning to question my decision of major. Basically, I don't like the idea of being so committed to one field (biological engineering) at this point in my life, although it is a pretty broad field I guess. There are aspects of biological engineering that are interesting to me, I have always been fascinated by biology, but mainly I am more interested in the aspects that involve the most mathematics - Optics and anything involving "computational" in the name. I'm not as interested in the tissue/cellular engineering because it involves too much chemistry and not enough math. I am somewhat interested in neuroengineering just because it involves the brain which fascinates me and seems like it would involve quite a bit of math and programming.

    Basically to sum things up - I'm interested in mathematical modeling whether it is in neuroscience, geology, biology, ecology, etc... Anything relating to a biological system (not financial, economical modeling)

    So my question is: Would it be smart for me to major in math instead of engineering? The advantage I see to majoring in math is that I can form a great computational/analytical background while not committing fully to a specific field. Am I correct in assuming that math would be flexible enough to allow me to go to graduate school for any of my listed interests with regards to modeling? The other issue I am having is that my school does not offer an "applied" math degree although I believe I could choose electives to mold it into one... Is this an issue as far as which graduate programs I can apply to - I'm not planning on applying to a math program? Also, would I be able to do modeling with a physics degree or is math a better choice (dual?)?

    Thanks to all who can help!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 12, 2012 #2
    I can't remember on which department's website it was, but it was in something biomath related. They mentioned that a minor in biology, along with the major in mathematics would be good. In any case, you seem to have made your decision a while back: you like the mathematical aspects of biology. Math with minors in computational neuroscience and biology looks like a sound idea to me.

    Actually, why don't you just go through the pages of grad schools who have departments where research is being conducted in those areas you're interested in and see what they suggest? NYU has a program in Computational Biology. As does UCLA (Biostats, I think).
  4. Jun 12, 2012 #3
    Thanks, I'll look around at grad programs and see what they say. I guess I just haven't found my niche in research yet. I like the idea of computational biology and being able to describe biology mathematically but I don't know if I would actually enjoy (or be good at) doing it.
  5. Jun 12, 2012 #4
    I'm in a similar position to you. Here's what I'm doing:

    - I'm learning math like a math major would (Calculus from Spivak and then Sternberg and Loomis; Algebra by Artin; that's for a start and should keep me busy till next year)
    - I'm learning how to code

    As I get more comfortable with programming, I'll see if there's anything I can do to get my feet wet. That's the only way to know. Just do it.
  6. Jun 12, 2012 #5
    Interesting you say that... I've actually decided to hold off on physics II next semester in order to take a time conflicting matlab class to see how I like programming. I'm also planning on trying to learn a bit on my own.

    After checking a few computational biology graduate departments' prerequisites it seems as though my math minor will give me just enough math to get started for most so I may just stay with engineering for now. Also, since I'm biological engineering I will have the biology requirements as well. The only thing I may be lacking on is skills in programming which I may have to work on outside of classes.
  7. Jun 13, 2012 #6
    i think you should stick with your current major because there's so much of math that's just totally useless for your interests... and most people's interests out of pure theoretical math.

    the difference is that while BioE "useless" classes are just merely "useless" (actually, useful, it's there for you to open your mind), there's some *required* theoretical math classes that are useless (literally useless) and HARD. Just take classes in the applied math and computer science you need to do your work.

    take for example, analysis or number theory. how does doing proofs on prime numbers help you model an ecosystem? i did a project on ecological modeling, it was just differential equations. most of computational biology is, from what I've seen: numerical differential equations (ODE and PDE) and statistics.

    if your school offers something like "mathematical methods in sciences and engineering" or "numerical methods in science and engineering" that's going to teach you most of the math you need, the rest is programming and reading extra books. the important part in ecosystem modeling isn't the math itself I think, it is interpreting the results. The math tools have already been invented (like RK4), pick the one you think is good from your understanding of math, and apply them. No need to reinvent the wheel.
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2012
  8. Jun 13, 2012 #7
    This was extremely helpful for me. I'm curious though, what was your undergraduate degree in? Also, this is probably a silly question but do you get to do any "field work" in ecological modeling? If not, then where do you get your data from - other scientists?
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