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Mathematics + Second Major (Microbiology or CS)?

  1. Feb 1, 2016 #1
    Dear Physics Forum personnel,

    I am an undergraduate pursuing a major in the mathematics. My current undergraduate project in the computational virology really got me interested in the worlds of microbiology. The project involves both the biology and computer science, which is specifically about the development of novel machine-learning algorithms to predict the evolutionary trend of viruses and future genetic make-up. I concluded that I will pursue a second major in either a microbiology or a computer science major, as my future career would be in the applied mathematics in biology or a computational biology.

    I initially decided to pursue a CS major since my work involves the programming and subjects like artificial intelligence, but I started to feel that all advanced works in CS involve a lot of mathematics, and that the strong background in mathematics is perhaps what is really needed, and it can replace the CS. The microbiology major seems to be a good option but I am not good with the traditional "wet" lab approach to it.

    Which major (CS or microbiology) will be a good synergy with my mathematics major?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 1, 2016 #2


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    I think this is one of those "no right answer" kind of questions. There's advantages and disadvantages of either approach. Another approach might be to just take the courses that interest you and graduate as a single major in mathematics.

    One thing to remember is that you're not choosing a career right now. You're choosing an educational path. You've found a project that's really interesting for you and that's great. And you might be able to follow that project or others like it through graduate school. But the probability that you'll end up working on that same project for a career is small. So in making the decision, try to factor in things like flexibility. Personally I would think that a computer science and mathematics path would keep more professional doors open than mathematics and biology, but I don't have any quantitative data to base that on.
  4. Feb 1, 2016 #3
    Thank you very much for an advice! For a graduate program, I am thinking of either going in the pure mathematics in set theory (and its applications to the analysis and algorithms) or the applied mathematics involving the biology, say computational biology. I am aware that both fields are quite divergent to each other....Quite a few of courses required for the CS (software engineering, architectures) and Microbiology are also not relevant to my current projects, which makes the decision difficult to make.
  5. Feb 2, 2016 #4


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    Don't call this advice, call it a reasoned opinion.

    I would say in general for someone with the choices you have before you, go for the option that mixes in an amount of applications, or applicative areas.

    Outside of university (and to an extent even inside) from the point of view of most employers, who is going to look more useful to them? - the guy who has done that extra course that you haven't in set theory, or that extra way-out branch of geometry or algebra or 100 other math or computing specialities that their profs will tell you throws a flood of light on everything else and is the key to the universe? Or the guy who looks like he could do not just maths or computing, but the math of something, computing of something?

    If you have done, I don't know how much this is for you, two or three years university level maths or computing, then you should have learned how to learn it, and will always be able learn something more of it when you need to (and you could say that maths is the only thing you can learn from a book). Whereas whenever else is a chance going to come your way to do a course in microbiology?

    If you're going to do some biology, microbiology struck me at first as slightly peculiar. But then the same consideration applies as for maths - Biology is vast, and you can never do everything. I presume the course will involve basic molecular biology or that you have already done this, and I trust an organic or even physical chemical formula does not give you a heart attack. So microbiology, slightly peculiar but not bad at all. You do have to take yourself in hand for these worries about the experimental aspect. To just decide you're going to be up to it. Some of the techniques by the way are quite natty, it is not only maths that has elegance! But if this is going to be, I don't know what percentage say 25, of your time, it means not 25% committmebt to it, but being 100% committed for 25% of your working time. The fact that you're doing a project in it will probably help make you better focused during lessons and reading compared to someone without that involvement..

    One thing this biology option should give you is a greater ability to communicate with the people of this discipline, by being acquainted with the way they think. If you don't do this you're not going to understand too well what their problems, their scientific questions, read easily their publications, listen to their talks and conferences without it being all too much and sending you to sleep. (At a certain level there can't be the mathematician who just accepts the data biologists give him, and performs the calculations that biologists ask him, without understanding where the data comes from, with its imperfections, error rates, etc etc, things they may not even realise matter, or things they don't tell you because they imagine they are obvious to you.) Trans-disciplinary communication abilities are valued by many employers.
  6. Feb 2, 2016 #5
    Thank you very much for feeling your valuable experience and opinion. I am actually discussing with my advisor to change some required courses for a microbiology program. Since I am very interested in the computational and mathematical aspects of microbiology, we are discussing to remove the organic chemistry and general physics requirements of a microbiology, and replace them with the CS courses like Algorithms, Bioinformatics, and Machine Learning.

    I realized too that I do not need all courses required both CS and microbiology major, such as organic chemistry and computer architecture. Perhaps my time can be better spent by pursuing the mathematics rigorously and a modified microbiology major with emphasis on some relevant CS classes as ones I mentioned.

    I am also currently doing a reading course in the set theory. I know this is peculiar too since the set theory is quite distance from the biological science, but I am always interested in the foundational mathematics, particularly the set theory and its applications. In your opinion, do you think the graduate program will question why I pursue both applied and theoretical mathematics?

    I love your last paragraph. I cannot agree more than it is very important to have a strong communication skill to effectively connect two distinct subjects of science. Actually, I concluded that I should pursue the microbiology major since I need to have a strong skill of translating the quantitative results into qualitative explanation and vice versa, and comprehensive understand of biological phenomena rather than numerical formulation.
  7. Feb 2, 2016 #6


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    Well your advisor knows a lot that I don't, you, your background and pre-university learning, the various syllabuses and courses and the departments offering them. My feeling is that yes, you can skip the general physics (don't throw your books away). I am not so happy with skipping organic chemistry. Glycolysis, the pentose shunt pathway, nucleotide biosynthesis, in fact lots of pathways, oxidative phosphorylation, polysaccharides etc. all figure prominently in microbiology. (if you do cut that course, at least invest in one of those little books with titles like 'organic chemistry for biologists' or '... for medical students'.)

    About set theory don't know what a 'reading course' is, I presume reading a book not without doing some of the exercises? A lot of us have peculiar interests. I would never say a word against anyone trying to deepen his understanding of something he's curious about.

    Your supervisor sounds helpful - if you consider suitable by all means knock ideas, showing him my and other ideas from this thread.
  8. Feb 2, 2016 #7
    Systems biology is a new field. There is lot's of data. Now, we need smart algorithms to make some sense of it. Still, we have to wonder when a CS guy comes along, who lacks knowledge of both the fundamentals and the nuances, and claims he has a new insight based on fuzzy data.

    As for chemical biology, you will always have a gap in understanding. In fact, most microbiologists also have a gap there. You can't be an expert on CS and biology and chemistry and math. Then there's law work, which takes skill in itself to be fast and accurate.
    Good thing is, you can get away with a lot based on genetics, statistics and your CS/math base.

    Genetics and CS math a lot better than microbiology and CS, usually. Also depends on if you want to go into academics and do a PhD or go into the normal job market. Not a lot of companies making money creating metabolic simulations of microorganisms. But in academics, work is being done here to prove this can be done and may be useful.
    If a simulation done by a bioinformatician/systems biologist over a 2 month period can save a microbiology PhD candidate 6 months of working in the lab, then that's time well invested.
    But in itself, systems biology gives little concrete results. More like narrows down research targets.
  9. Feb 4, 2016 #8
    Thank you very much for your advice. I actually did a summer research at the organic chemistry in the past, so I self-studied the basics of organic chemistry. Although I forgot a lot of reaction mechanisms and types, I am confident that a quick review can revive my the forgotten pieces of puzzle.

    The reading course in the set theory involves both the reading and a lot of exercises. I love the set theory and want to learn more about it. To be honest, I started to feel like I love the set theory more than the computational biology....
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