Unlocking the Secrets of Life

Biology, math, technology converge in a hot new field

by Elise Gibson

Biomathematics, a rapidly growing field that merges the worlds of mathematics, statistics, computer science, and engineering with biology, biochemistry, and neuroscience, may turn out to be the place where the secrets of life itself are unlocked. That’s the view of Ileana Streinu, Charles N. Clark Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics, and the director of Smith’s new concentration in biomathematics. She also wrote the grant for what became a five-year, $1 million award from the National Science Foundation to establish a Four College Biomathematics Consortium [4CBC]. Led by Smith, the consortium comprises Amherst, Mount Holyoke, and Hampshire colleges. Here, Streinu talks about biomath and why it’s suddenly getting so much attention.Ileanu Streinu

What is biomathematics?
Understanding the laws of nature is what drives the natural sciences. Entire branches of mathematics have been developed to address the problems identified in physics and chemistry, but recently, the big demand comes from biology.

Is it a new field, or newly growing?
What is new is the sudden growth, brought about by the stunning technological advances of the last few decades. This has led to the accumulation of an enormous amount of data, potentially holding the secrets of life on earth. The twenty-first century scientists, those who will address new questions posed by the life sciences, need to be trained not just as biologists; they also need to acquire the mathematical way of thinking. Simply putting mathematicians and biologists together will not create these new scientists. They need to be trained in both fields.

What kind of student might take the biomath concentration?
Our students want to make a difference. They want their skills to help solve the important problems of the day, not just provide abstract training. If the student is attracted to the natural sciences and has good analytical and quantitative skills, she will find the biomathematics concentration perfectly suited for her. She could focus on the major that most interests her—and complement it with courses in the “other half.” For example, a biology major should take a few classes in mathematics, and a mathematics major will take a few courses in biology— but without following through a complete second major. Rather, her courses may be directed by the research project she chooses to work on.

What careers does it pointtoward?
These skills are in high demand right now, and a biomathematics concentration may open the doors to positions in industry, in the biotech sector, or for further studies in the biological sciences. Besides expertise and deep levels of knowledge, confidence in using the modern technology and in applying mathematical thinking are modern skills whose importance cannot be underestimated in the training of future generations of life scientists.

How will Smith students benefit from the Four College Biomathematics Consortium?
The 4CBC allows for better distribution of resources, in terms of faculty expertise and research collaborations. Collaborating with another student, or with a professor from another campus, will place a Smith student into a real-world research environment, where multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary teams of researchers collaborate in the pursuit of a challenging life sciences problem they want to solve.

Winter ’11-’12 SAQ

Elise Gibson is managing editor of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly
Photo: Jessica Scranton