Maths: A beautiful subject?

Dundee's new degree aims to persuade students that maths is not boring

By Lucy Hodges
Thursday 07 November 2002 01:00

How to make maths sexy? That's a nettle being grasped by Scotland's Dundee University. In an effort to excite people about a subject seen as nerdy and difficult, it is introducing a degree in mathematical biology which involves using mathematical techniques to, for example, predict the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Thought to be the first degree of its kind, the BSc brings together maths with a subject in which the frontiers are being pushed out as a result of the human genome project. Thus, biology is attracting large sums of money for gene therapy, cloning and biotechnology.

Students will solve some highly technical but everyday problems such as how many fish are left in the North Sea, how many children should be vaccinated to prevent a serious measles outbreak and how much radiation will kill a tumour but not the patient. Professor Mark Chaplain says: "We want to turn people on to maths and show them it does not have to be a dull, boring subject. Maths has a lot of inherent beauty; it also has a lot of applications."

Dundee hopes to attract young mathematicians whose imagination is sparked by being able to find solutions to some of the world's problems. The course ties in with the university's strength in the biosciences: Dundee has a new Wellcome Trust Biocentre housing 250 scientists researching the causes of diseases such as diabetes, sleeping sickness and cancer. Students will work closely with some big-name academics: Sir Philip Cohen, at the Wellcome Trust Biocentre, and Sir David Lane, of the department of surgery and molecular oncology at Ninewells Hospital.

Concern about the declining number of students opting to study maths at university has grown with the introduction of the new sixth form curriculum which has led to fewer students taking maths A-level. The number taking maths degrees in England and Wales fell by 12 per cent this year. A similar drop is evident in Scotland, according to Professor Chaplain.

"We want to train students on the new BSc to undertake all the usual biological experiments, to go on field trips and to collect data," he says. "But we also want to equip them with mathematical and statistical skills so that they can do statistical analyses of the data. We want them to be able to look at it in a more quantitative, predictive manner."

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