Mathematics for Biologists

In Short

Mathematical Biology gets mixed reactions. It really does feel like a continuation of A-level maths (don’t worry if you haven’t done Further Maths – this course goes in a different direction). It’s a valuable opportunity to tie off your study of pure maths, learning more complex calculus, vectors and imaginary numbers, and you get to see how these models are useful to real scientists. None the less, with the pace of a Cambridge timetable, many students struggle with MB, and it will be no less dull than you found A-level maths.

The lecture quality tends to be good, with a gentle pace and time to ask questions, although lecture styles can be a bit quirky. The handouts aren’t great, but the most important thing to do is to write down every step of working in the lecture. There are also sporadic ‘examples lectures’ when tripos questions etc. are tackled on an OHP. Questions tend to be largely similar – learn the method once and just drop in new numbers – but there is always a twist somewhere of varying difficulty: You will find worked answers which you can’t understand, but we’re all in the same boat.

Supervision work is set by the university, and supervisors at Christ’s usually do a pretty good job at helping you through it, although some years have had one or two less good supervisors. Worked answers are also usually available. If you are gifted at maths, and dedicate the time to tackle and understand every past question, it is possible to get marks unheard of in tripos. Maths courses are weighted down when calculating your final mark for the year to counter this: A number of us will also have car crash final maths exams which won’t matter much either.

So if I’m good, should I do Maths A or B instead? In my opinion no: MB has less content, an easier exam, is biologically relevant with less pure maths, has a reduced practical component and no coursework. Of course if you’re that good, you just as well get an awesome mark. You should also bear in mind that able mathematicians who top mocks etc. can struggle even to find time to revise MB when it comes to Easter term and perform less well than expected. Of course, if Maths is a passion of yours, then you ought to discuss the content of the various options with your DoS’s and choose the most interesting: The NatSci course is structured so it doesn’t matter what marks you sacrifice in the first two years anyway.

Topics Covered

Population Growth & Decline modelling
Summary Statistics & Significance
Modern Statistical Methods
Differentiation & Integration
Physiological modelling
Plotting Interacting Populations
Probability

Practicals

These can be a brief weekly annoyance. The packages used aren’t usually loved by you, although you can usually bend MatLab to your will by Lent. Even I (who have never missed a lecture) stopped going – the best thing to do is go to the lecture in which they go through a practical paper, then get the handouts from the practicals and write the code you will use into MatLab / R. The assessed practicals are short, open book, you can guess the questions and code first, and you can ask for help (with a penalty). Hence if prepared well, you can do very well, although they count for a pittance anyway.