Think back to some of the core materials you learned from a biology course, either in college or high school. What do you remember? Maybe you remember something about human anatomy, or the carbon cycle, the structure of cells, or how DNA is replicated? But do you ever immediately think about how math and biology overlap? Mathematical tools and concepts are used by a large number of biological scientists, but the connection between math and biology isn’t always visible.
For example, in my work, I use statistics to test hypotheses about how species interact in nature, and I have used computer-programming tools to analyze genetic sequences from the microbial species I study as part of my research. But what kinds of tools do other biologists use? Below is a brief survey of IU biology professors who merge biology with math in a lot of surprising ways. How can we use computers to help solve the mysteries of fruit flies and use mathematical models to simulate chopping down a forest? Find out below!
To start off, let’s look at the work being done by Dr. Roger P. Hangarter. Dr. Hangarter is a plant physiologist who is interested in how plants move and grow when exposed to basic environmental stimuli such as light and gravity.
“As a plant physiology lab studying various plant responses to environmental stimuli, mathematical thinking is critical for analyzing experimental data as well as for formulating working models for how a particular physiological process works. Conceptual models are important for designing experiments that will yield data which will allow us to test our ideas for how a process works. For our work, computer programming skills are probably the most valuable when we need to design ways to control some of the instruments that we have built in order to conduct certain experiments.”
On the other hand, Dr. Irene G. Newton is interested in the bacteria that make their homes within the guts of tiny insects like fruit flies (Drosophila) and honeybees. In particular she is interested in how one type of bacteria, Wolbachia, and its fruit fly host evolve together over time:
“We use genomic re-sequencing data to identify evolution in action within the Wolbachia-Drosophila system. For those experiments, we would be working with existing [scripting] pipelines for quality control and genome mapping and [we] use [other] scripts to “glue” these softwares together and pull out specific results from [our] flat files produced during the analysis… It is really useful in handling large-scale bioinformatics data.”
Dr. Richard P. Phillips is an ecosystems ecologist who uses mathematical models, based on field data, to understand how plants interact with the fungi and bacteria in their soils to influence global-scale nitrogen and carbon cycles:
“We use mathematical models to help us understand how ecosystems differ in the way they cycle and store carbon and nutrients. First, we collect field data from our forest plots. Then we use these data to parameterize our models. The models are extremely useful for allowing us to: 1) test the sensitivity of certain processes (i.e., which parameters/variables are the most/least sensitive according to the model?), 2) run modeling experiments (e.g., we can cut down the forest in the model, or increase temperatures to see how things respond) and 3) develop new hypotheses which we can test with actual field and lab experiments.”
Moving back to Drosophila–fruit flies–Jason Tennesen is a molecular biologist here at IU who is interested in how a species’ growth is connected to its metabolism, particularly those cellular mechanisms involving simple sugars, and other metabolites, like glucose. He studies these questions using fruit flies.
“We use excel and Graphpad Prism in my lab to analyze metabolic and metabolomic data. These programs are used to detect statistically significant changes in metabolite concentration.”
And finally, Dr. Farrah Bashey-Visser is an evolutionary ecologist studying the bacteria that live inside of parasitic nematodes. She uses computer programs and software to organize, analyze, and visualize the data she collects from her experiments:
“We use statistical tools all the time in our biological research. We often want to compare different experimental groups, or look for patterns within natural populations. Excel is our go-to tool for organizing the data we collect by hand or from of a machine. Excel can also be useful for quick graphs and preliminary statistical analyses, but more often we use SAS [a statistical program and computing language] to combine information from several excel worksheets into larger datasets that we can analyze and visualize more efficiently. Most of the programming I do is within SAS or excel, usually to manipulate the data I have into different formats so that I can better understand what the data ‘say’. ”