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Is it possible for people to go from a biology degree to math or physics?

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On this website (and on the internet in general) it seems fashionable for physicists and mathematicians to venture into biological fields in order to apply their mathematical knowledge as well as the general


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On this website (and on the internet in general) it seems fashionable for physicists and mathematicians to venture into biological fields in order to apply their mathematical knowledge and also general methodology to biological problems. However, there is very little debate about biologists breaking into mathematical or physical realms. I'm about two years away from my bachelor's degree and I'm very torn between my love of biology and math and think it's likely that I could end up in science.

Is it possible for someone who has studied biology to switch to a mathematical field? Is it possible but seldom? Would the possibility of a joint degree or a biology degree with a higher proportion of mathematical content influence this at all? Or are such people better off getting a pure math degree and later moving into a biological field?

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  • My point is that you can think of many physics and chemistry laboratories that a mathematician can work in while there should be few, if any - math "laboratories" that a chemist, physicist, or biologist should have anything permanent in and could research for many years. I think you should do the math and get it as close to your interests as possible. Do biology only if you can do it in a modern setting or institution where you know that active research areas are in line with your two passions. In addition to the Scientist Curriculum, you will be taught or connected with scientists :)

There are a wide variety of fields that use elements of math and biology. These can be quantitative biology, mathematical biology, systems biology, biophysics, bioinformatics, bioengineering, etc. All of these cultures have slightly different cultures and issues that they are interested in, and you can enjoy each of them. In many of these hybrid areas, there are undergraduate programs that might suit you.

Fomite's answer shows that you can start either way and end up in a combination. But my recommendation would be if you are interested in working in a position that combines math and biology this could be easier Make sure that your undergraduate major includes at least some math elements; H. choose either math or a hybrid math / physics / engineering major.

One reason is (possibly unfair) stereotypes about biologists and mathematicians. The stereotype about mathematicians + physicists is that they don't maintenance about the biological details. But the stereotype about biologists is that they don't understand maths. This makes it harder for people with a biological background to be hired in a math-motivated group. (Harder - but not impossible!)

The less cynical reason for at least starting some math is depth versus breadth. Biology as a subject has a colossal breadth that can be wonderful! However, this means that one big topic (e.g. ecology) is not necessarily a prerequisite for another topic (cell biology). But on the math side, if you want to use partial differential equations to model a biological system, you probably need calculus, linear algebra, ordinary differential equations, etc. first! So I think the road from high school-level skills to research-level skills in mathematical biology is longer in mathematics than in biology.

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  • 1 I'd suggest another reason as well: In my experience, math programs are ill-equipped (and often not interested in) catching up non-math students who are interested in a stronger quantitative background, while many math bio programs have more experience in the Students with limited biology deal with mathematics. This is a problem that I am currently dealing with at my own institution. We have metric tons of ways to teach more biology to a math / CS student, but very few coursework paths for the opposite.
  • @Fomite - that might be very useful. I'm sure this must exist somewhere ("Bio to QBIO Boot Camp"), but I haven't seen one yet. Things like the qbio summer school all require that you've at least seen ODEs. Did you find an example outside of your institution?

"Mathematics" means many things - especially at the beginning it can mean something like applied mathematics or pure mathematics, for which this answer has very different traces.

I would say it breaks down into two possible traces:

Track One, "I want to be a mathematician" - You want to move in that direction and either do math for its own sake or math as it is applied to a variety of different things. In my experience, the answer here is "it is possible, but difficult". There will be expectations of your coursework background that you may not have had without an effective double major, but it's not impossible.

Track 2: "I want to be a very mathematical biologist". As you noted earlier, the "fashionable" way to do this is to switch from math to biology, but the other way is certainly possible. There are a number of labs under the heading of "Mathematical Biology" that take biology students into their ranks, and when you're ready to get into the job there is no reason you couldn't build a very strong background in mathematics, while maintaining the value of the expertise (something that is undervalued, IMO).

I took the latter route, moving from a bachelor's background in laboratory microbiology to something that fits the description of "mathematical biology" very well.

The good (or possibly bad) news is that you actually don't need that much math to do math biology. However, if you feel that at some point you would like to get into academic work in pure mathematics, a background in mathematical biology alone is likely inadequate.

I think the main reason that the usual direction is math -> math bio instead of bio -> math bio is psychological: More people with a math-intensive background are willing to learn the necessary biology than the other way around.

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  • 2 I would suggest that beyond readiness there is some pretty strong tracking as well. In my experience people who are good at math and Those interested in science in the US are directed towards math, physics, and engineering, while those slightly less proficient with math are pushed towards the life sciences early on.
  • @Fomite Maybe I'm an exception, but I got a PhD in life sciences in the US (although in a field that is more quantitative than some others), was good at math and interested in science, and I never felt persecuted or rushed these other disciplines. I think the push could actually go in the other direction: there are many more resources in life sciences or applied mathematics than in basic mathematics.

The other answers relate to what is possible if you want to work in an area of ​​applied mathematics such as mathematical biology. However, I would like to point out that it is virtually impossible to attend a pure math graduate school without a degree in mathematics. I know some people who have done this, but they were pretty exceptional and still had the equivalent of a strong student math education when they started graduate school. I have taken college graduates many times (in pure math at various private research universities), and I can't remember ever seriously considering admitting anyone who was not a math major (and even people who were math majors, were at a serious disadvantage despite admitting a couple).

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  • For what's worth it: A few years ago, my department admitted a PhD student who had a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering. This student wanted to study theoretical mathematics ...
  • @Pete L. Clark: Out of curiosity, how did that work? Were they able to pass their proficiency tests in a reasonable amount of time? We're always concerned that they don't have the background or math maturity to do well in our first year senior classes.
  • Yes, the student passed their proficiency tests faster than average and is expected to graduate this year. Perhaps it is important to mention that the student's basic education was in a country with a less flexible system: if you enroll as an engineering student, you must graduate as an engineering student. For a home student, given how common double majors are, how interested would they be if they failed to complete a math major?