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Undergrad Interested in Math/Bio

  1. Nov 30, 2011 #1
    I'm currently a second-year taking a course that samples from Real Analysis/Complex Analysis/Functional Analysis/Topology/Linear Algebra and I enjoy it a lot. I learned some abstract algebra over the summer and thought that was fun as well. But at the same time, I'd like to do some applied work. Mathbio seems interesting for this because it seems to be a new-ish, fertile field (and some applied mathematicians I know have told me that it's "hot"). I'm hoping to do a Ph.D in that area, with an emphasis on the math side as demonstrated above.

    That's where I am right now, but I'm wondering: what, besides going to one of the summer mathbio reus and doing well in coursework, can I do right now to make myself a better candidate for graduate school?

    Also, does my interest in more pure math doom me here? I regret to say that I don't really like differential equations. Put in a kind of quixotic way, my hope is instead to apply pure math.

    And does anyone have any comments about the field of mathbio in general? E.g., employment prospects.

  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2011 #2
    do research in general, that is the key to getting into grad school, especially with publishing papers. grad schools want to see that you like / love to do research, because that is all you do in grad school. the field / area / subject doesn't matter at all.

    other kids with no research and perfect scores get rejected at top schools and other places, because they are literally a giant question mark -- how does the school know that they like research, and wont quit or leave once they get into things?
  4. Dec 2, 2011 #3
    Well, as far as I know outside of REUs an undergraduate can't really do research in math. And there are few/no mathbio labs at my university (none I can find). So does this mean I should just join some pure bio lab?
  5. Dec 2, 2011 #4
    yes, and nice username
  6. Dec 2, 2011 #5
    Research is good, but I'd say the number one thing is to impress 3 profs to get good recommendation letters. I didn't do any research in undergrad, but I got into a decent math graduate program--not Ivy League, but the next best thing. Also, it is good to take graduate classes. Usually, the people who get into the top schools will have been taking graduate classes already in undergrad for 1-2 years.

    In math, usually people don't start doing research for a little while. In other fields, the research tends to start earlier.

    Well, I don't know that much about mathematical bio, but I think it would help if you were more into differential equations. Usually, undergraduate differential equations classes are a joke (my graduate level PDE class was also a joke, so I read V I Arnold's book about PDE and actually learned something), so I don't know if I would judge the subject just yet. PDE is awesome when Arnold does it. When 99% of everyone else does it, it sucks (slight exaggeration). For ODE, the main thing is to ignore any stupid lower undergraduate-level crap like Boyce and DiPrima's supposed "classic"(::gag::). But I think there is a place for applying pure math.

    If you like topology, there are applications of knot theory to the study of DNA. If you like probability, I think you can apply that to evolutionary theory. But don't listen to me, since I am fairly ignorant of the subject.
  7. Dec 3, 2011 #6


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    One thing that stands out is bioformatics.

    I remember a while ago Stanford had PhD spots for this kind of thing. If you were good at a quantitative level, you would have a chance.
  8. Dec 3, 2011 #7
    As an undergrad I'd say you're set if you have strong recommendations, solid math GRE, great GPA, and already have research experience, especially if it's published in a peer reviewed journal.

    Maybe spend some free time reading both of J.D. Murray's Mathematical Biology textbooks ... they're the standard for intro level mathematical biology stuff.

    It will not hurt you at all if you're more focused on "pure math" right now ... anywhere you go to grad school, you'll undoubtedly be required to take PhD qualifying exams in at least two or three (if not more) of: Algebra, Topology, Analysis, Geometry.

    The most common area (as far as I know) of mathematical biology is in the realm of differential equations (either dynamics and bifurcations or PDE stuff having to do with cellular processes). However, I know there are tons of other areas of math-bio that are mostly based in applying "pure math" like looking at the geometry of protein folding and topology DNA-RNA-protein construction/transcription/etc... Algebra, complex analysis, and Lie group theory is also pretty darn important when you get into the hard-core differential equation theory that's involved in the PDE parts of math-bio.

    Bioinformatics (again, as far as I know) is really involved with algebra and combinatorics while using tons of computer science know-how to get the research done. It's a mix of "pure math" and computer programming ... so that would be good if you're really into programming too.

    So, moral of the story: pure math will help now and into the time when you'll more easily get through your PhD qualifiers ... but it may limit you when it comes to finding a program that has professors with pure math backgrounds doing math-bio. Later on, your job prospects will probably be more determined by your thesis, participation in conferences, who your adviser was, where you went to school, etc... than the fact that you took a "pure math" route to research mathematical biology.

    Good luck ... I know a decent bit about this because I've been researching it for a little over a year now, but I'm actually leaning farther towards biophysics instead of mathematical biology. I'm more into learning quantum mechanics, advanced statistical mechanics, probability theory, and stochastic modeling / computer programming than I am with learning all the "pure math" to pass PhD qualifiers in a math department and then doing math-biology research ... but yeah, best of luck to you, just keep exploring new stuff and you'll probably find your way as you get more into the subject.
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