Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Battle with Math

*NOTE* the following is my opinion based on personal experience, and is in no way meant to be preachy, if you feel differently feel free to share.

*ANOTHER NOTE* I'm sure this topic has been beaten to death but I want to add my two cents.

Let me preface this by saying I have struggled with math throughout my academic life and in no way consider myself to be an expert.  As an elementary school student I was always relegated to the lowest level math classes and was so inept that I was forced to receive math tutoring from the ever so nerdy math center, which in 6th grade amounted to social suicide.  However, as much as I dreaded it at the time the extra help was effective.  While I wouldn't say I was a math whiz for the rest of my elementary, middle, and high school life I made it through and would like to think I learned a little something.

When I enrolled in college as an environmental biology undergrad I was placed in an introductory calculus class.  Because of my previous struggles, I was nervous about the class but I applied myself and did well (by my meager standards).  Students in my major had the option to either take two classes of calculus, physics or organic chemistry, physics was generally considered to be the easiest option for aspiring biologists so most of my peers opted for two classes of physics instead of calculus.  While it's clear that all three of these disciplines are integrated into biology and taking as many classes as possible in all three disciplines would be ideal, I had to choose one so I chose calculus.  My thought process as a naive first year college student was that if I was going to get into fisheries science I was probably going to be dealing with a lot of numbers and what better place to learn about numbers than calculus even if I was going to struggle through.  I did struggle and I had to work hard to get through, but I think it was well worth the time.

Which brings me to my current situation.  Very early in my graduate career I was given this advice by a seasoned graduate student "you can never know to much statistics".  This was something that really resonated with me, and after this sentiment was re-iterated to me by more than a few fisheries professionals, I decided I would really dedicate myself to attempting to not only be able to use statistics but to really understand them as well.  I have now taken four statistics courses during my graduate career and have found them to be the classes where I have learned the most.  I have also worked independently to try and understand the statistics I would need for my own research, and while my understanding isn't where I want it to be quite yet, I think I have done pretty well.          

So why am I writing this?  I get the impression, whether it's true or not, that many biologists are satisfied with the bare minimum when it comes to statistics.  I think this apparent apathy comes from a fear of math (a phobia that I have also been afflicted with).  If you are lucky enough to be a student you have the opportunity to learn the necessary statistics and should take advantage of opportunities to learn new mathematical techniques.  The most impressive studies are those that have a solid design and the statistical tests and analysis used are appropriate for answering the question.  Biologists shouldn't be afraid of tackling an area they may be unfamiliar with,  as math and biology will always be intertwined.

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