[This post was submitted by Laura Klein, a 2011 grad of the IBH program]
Greetings from graduate school, current and future IBH-ers!
This week, I’m starting my second year as a graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Two weeks ago, I came back from collecting an awesome set of pilot data for my dissertation at the field site in Poland where I first worked as an undergrad in IBH. I recently had a birthday. Life is good.
But this time of year- the time of year to select classes- always brings up strong feelings of regret for classes I didn’t take as an undergrad. Not biology, evolution, or bioanthropology courses- things that would seem really, directly important to what I’m doing now. I regret never taking more math and statistics. I could plead ignorance and say I wasn’t told these would be important, but the truth is I was just late in understanding.
When I first sat at an information session for IBH more than five years ago, I couldn’t believe the places IBH students were going. But as I listened to Dr. Cheeseman speak, I could almost picture myself doing a vague amazing something… until we got to the course plan. Any buds of hope for my own amazing IBH adventures were nearly killed by icy fear when I heard “Calculus sequence” and “advanced statistics” among the required courses. Had I realized how much calculus would be used in the physics classes, I probably would have been scared of those too. I wasn’t alone in my fear of “the Calculus” either- many of my classmates and the students I helped interview later said their only apprehension about the program was the math requirements.
I came dangerously close to walking away from IBH because I didn’t understand why I would need calculus, physics, or statistics. My 18-year-old self just didn’t see the point- even when Dr. Cheeseman spelled it out:
The point of IBH is not to put students on a specific path, but to give you a toolbox that you could take with you in any direction. Calculus, physics, and most importantly statistics are the foundation of a toolbox that can take you places.
Ingenious experimental design and precision lab skills are worthless if you don’t have the intellectual tools to analyze the data. Some simple statistics can be done without a lot of math background. But if you start to look at the fancy statistics- the tools that can actually tell you something about a complex system - the list of basic mathematical prerequisites can be long (including calculus and beyond into linear algebra and differential equations). Now, if you just stay away from complex systems, you could stick with the most basic statistics. Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation with a biologist that didn’t include: “But you know, it’s a complex system.” I’m going to make a safe bet that there are no hands raised out there.
In the short term, the math background will make you a stronger applicant to graduate schools. When I was doing my grad school interviews at Emory and Harvard, the thing that impressed interviewers most was not the biology or anthropology courses that would be (seemingly) most relevant to my graduate work. What made the IBH curriculum really stand out for them was the math and physics. Without exaggeration, I spent 20 minutes of a 30 minute interview at one of these schools discussing only my math and physics courses.
Why should math stand out? Because so many biologists avoid taking more than the minimum. I was sitting in an introductory anatomy class last year, and the professor was trying to explain how joints work using torque equations dragged right out of Physics 211. Unexpectedly, the flash animations from the 211 pre-lectures popped into my head and things started to click for me. But I was in the minority of people in the room… and I could have smacked my forehead when I heard “I thought there was no math in biology, that’s why I’m pre-med.”
If you think there is no math in biology, please e-mail me or any of your professors or TAs immediately. We will send protective football padding for when reality hits, because it will hit mercilessly. Somehow in biology, there is a long time in which students may sail through courses and labs and not realize how vital math-especially statistics- is to being a biologist. This period of blissful ignorance usually goes just past the time when you are firmly invested in your major, but it can extend as far as being accepted to and moving into your lab in graduate school. By the time many people realize that this “no math” thing is myth, there are too many competing interests to give statistics the time it probably deserves: experiments demands attention, grants need to be written, semesters available for taking classes are slipping away.
In the long run, if you’re going to be an academic, I’m starting to understand that statistics training is like gaining extra research dollars out of every grant you will ever receive. How? You won’t have to hire a statistician to analyze your data for you. You won’t have to make sure you collaborate with someone who can do your stats but might want to tag extra procedures or time onto your project. You’ll be invited to collaborate on papers with people who don’t have your training. And if you’re going into private research or industry- or business! or purchasing a home/life insurance!- many of the same principles apply. I’m not sure I know of a profession where knowing too much math has ever hurt a job applicant.
However, just because these classes will be useful does not mean they will be easy. You don’t need to be afraid, but you do need to be realistic. If you need help, get it while there is still time in the semester to really learn the concepts and not “almost catch up” (see Kamil’s excellent blog post on how not to get into grad school for more on this). You will be with engineers and people who have a lot more daily exposure to these concepts than you, but this does not mean that these classes are out of your reach. I needed tutoring for Calc II & III, and Physics 211 & 212. And I mean a lot of tutoring. Plus office hours, study groups, and hours of practice exams. At Illinois, there are resources to make sure you can succeed- the math department has free tutoring, and physics department has reasonable tutoring prices and lots of office hours. If you’re struggling, you are not alone. The older students are all still alive- ask them about TAs, tutors, and other places to get help.
If you’re already in IBH, my best advice to you is to take your statistics as early as you can and take more classes than required. Look for classes that emphasize applied knowledge. Find out what statistical software is used in your desired career and learn it. If you haven’t started down the IBH path yet, don’t let a fear of math deter you from IBH or a career in biology. If you identify your own roadblocks now and start asking how you can get help to work around them, IBH can help set you on a path to go wonderful places.
IBH students travel the world, publish research papers, and do all sorts of amazing things