Saturday, March 22, 2008

Comparisons of biologists vs. math, continued.

Anon 2:22,

Well yes and no. The paper might be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work.

The problem is that papers are still really the only currency we have, iceberg tip or not, we don't have much other proof that we did anything.


Although I consider myself at least as smart as most physicists and mathematicians I meet, I guess you are qualifying it by saying that physicists and mathematicians are 'smarter' than most biologists "on average"?

I would tend to disagree, but I've blogged at length in the past about the different kinds of intelligence/smarts, so I won't do it again here. Of course I'm too lazy to figure out which posts those were. One of these days I swear I'll go back through and tag them.

I guess I can see what you mean by physics requiring more raw brainpower.

If you're not good with your hands, if you have no aesthetic sense, you won't be good at biology.

Some people seem to think 'raw brainpower' measured in math is somehow more important, more valuable, or otherwise more useful in life.

It's not.

Raw brainpower isn't all that good at running pretty gels or observing differences in morphology. Raw brainpower is usually not such a great mentor or teacher, either.

If you want to be good at biology, you gotta have good hands, and you gotta have good eyes. So raw brainpower is part of the equation, but it's not the whole enchilada.

I think you can train most any muscle, including your brain, but only so much.

If you're totally uncoordinated and tend to knock over bunsen burners and set benches on fire (like a lab partner I had briefly in college), you'll tend to feel safer doing math. Only so much damage you can do with paper cuts and broken pencils!

I did not know that physics majors do better on the MCAT than biology majors. But honestly, it doesn't really surprise me. Most of the people I work with in biology now were not biology majors in college.

Modern biological research requires a very different background than the curriculum most college biology departments teach.

And by the way, to hell with the MCAT. Why do I care about anyone's scores on the MCAT? So far as I know, no one has done a study to show any correlation between MCAT scores and rate of obtaining faculty positions doing research.


As for (3), that really was not how your original comment read.

Your general implication, that most biology postdocs are idiots who are easily mislead, is pretty condescending. Maybe that's not how you think about it, but that's how you sound.

On the other hand, I do think that if biology did what physics does by limiting the number of slots, it might be better for everyone. But I don't see it happening. Just the opposite.

Did you see that Congress will discuss the possibility of increasing the number and salary for NSF graduate fellowships? The theory is that better students will have more incentive to stay in science if they get one of these.

I definitely think grad students should be paid more.

But I don't think we need more of them. Far from it. I'd rather have three great students, paid well enough that they don't need to worry about it, and have plenty of time to mentor them in my (future imaginary) lab, than 9 mediocre grad students and not enough time to help them all.

But hey, that's more than just raw brainpower talking.

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At 3:03 PM, Anonymous jasonbourne said...

It is hard to know in advance who is gonna be a stellar grad student and who is gonna be a mediocre one. These folks come with undergrad degrees and they do not have a track record unless they had a first author paper somehow during that time.
I do not understand the fuss about the paper writing here. Once the story is known, it will take a couple of days to prepare the manuscript unless you are going for Nature/Science/Cell etc. First author is the one who carried out the work. If you give me three or four figures, I can write you a four page Letter overnight if I know the field. Does that make me a first author? No.. The first author is the person who provides those figures. Writing the manuscript is not such a big deal really...

At 3:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If you're not good with your hands, if you have no aesthetic sense, you won't be good at biology."

If you have no aesthetic sense, then you won't be good at math either. I tried to minor in chemistry, and found organic and biochemistry classes too hard for me. I'm terrible at understanding complicated things--most "complicated" things in math have so much underlying structure that we're able to access them indirectly. This is absolutely not true in biology (or so is my understanding), where the systems involved are incredibly complicated and interconnected.

At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well yes and no. The paper might be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the work. ... we don't have much other proof that we did anything.

We're agreeing, I think. In (particularly pure) math, there is no iceburg hidden, so not only is the paper more representative of the work, the authors did that work.

Other areas, lacking academic currency other than papers, are under much more pressure to include people in an author list who technically didn't do this work. But, as you say, you have no other proof that you did anything.

The result is that the currency of papers works more cleanly for mathematics, and the author lists are short. We also tend to produce fewer, perhaps more detailed on average, papers.

-anon from 2:22 prev

At 12:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Modern biological research requires a very different background than the curriculum most college biology departments teach.

Can you elaborate further? I'm a junior biology major and thinking about graduate school so this comment makes nervous!


At 8:20 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

Great post. What I did was I went to From there, I followed the tips and guides that they offer on improving your brain power.Well, I tried and I definitely can see some improvement in my condition. So, you should consider trying it too.

At 10:24 AM, Anonymous Jake said...

I think that the general point when it comes to "averages" is that, say, a mathematician could probably do a better job as a biologist than vice-a-versa. Not that the mathematician could do a better job at biology than the biologist.

Here's the unofficial ranking of subject fields (from a physicist).

1) Mathematics
2) Physics (theo. is widely considered tougher than exp.)
3) Chemistry
4) Molecular biology/biochemistry
5) Biology, Geology, ...

Obviously this list is ranked by abstraction and thus it correlates well with IQ tests which again correlate well with MCAT and such.

BTW Europe has a different grad school philosophy. They only admit the best of the best (undergraduates) and have a higher success rate. In the US more people get a chance. Systemically speaking Europe is more regulated (well, duh) while the US phd production is more akin to a tragedy of the commons.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Your comment made me laugh. Maybe I will work on improving my condition too!


Interesting point. I still think it would depend a lot on the mathematician, but I'd be curious to know what the distribution looks like! Maybe it's not gaussian at all! In which case averages can be misleading.

Had an interesting discussion recently about how jobs & funding are power laws...

Also interesting to hear about Europe vs. US strategy on admissions.

I've not been overwhelmingly impressed with the 'average' European PhD at my university, just because the programs tend to be shorter so they come in with less experience.

Although it's silly to generalize since it varies dramatically depending on which country, which university, and which lab they came from.

Again, 'average' can be meaningless.

Bu isn't the US still ranked higher in terms of research than any other country, except maybe Japan? Or have we officially fallen behind?

I can't really bring myself to care much, but I'm curious just for amusement sake.

Maybe the US should start listening to the NAS reports (see comment on other post)?

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous Jake said...

Ms. PhD,

The hard(er) sciences as well as certain kinds of engineering (electrical, mechanical) seem to have a distinct and sharp cut-off point in terms of IQ scores (around 115-120, 85th percentile). This suggests that the two correlates and that there is some level of intelligence (as defined by that test) under which it is simply impossible to finish the degree. This effect is not seen in other fields.

It is probably this aspect that gives the edge to the mathematician e.g. some people that could become biologists are simply excluded from becoming mathematicians.

I think it was my phd advisor that once remarked to a freshman prospect when asked "so do you need to be intelligent/smart/.. to study physics". The answer was that "one can compensate by working harder but that there are only 24 hours in a day" or something to that effect.

I don't know how to find out if one country produces better research than other countries. For instance, the US is more focused on salesmanship and naturally would strive for higher impact factors, more publications, and what have you. This is less relevant in Europe. In any case the individual variation is too high to conclude very much from averages.

At 11:07 AM, Blogger RMC said...

Ms PhD,
I like your blog. I agree: the experimental scientist needs to have "hands". I did my undergrad research project and thesis in theoretical chemistry, and then started grad school doing experimental research in the lab. These different ways of doing science/research called for different parts of my brain, and allowed for diverse pathways to be creative (and successful). Personally, I think it is very difficult to connect the difficult, abstract concepts of a discipline to the actual experiment you are doing (and trying to troubsleshoot) on the bench, which to me brings challenge & excitement.

At 12:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, as a math major, I would have to agree with a lot of the comments made here. As to Jake's comment about distribution, I always felt that physics (especially mod. physics) requires a bit more power. Of course this could just be me, really, the more abstract and undefined things get, the better I like them and the better I tend to do with them. For example, Discrete mathematics is a really fun course for me, whereas the earlier maths I took where you memorized formulas to solve problems was like hell. Much to thhe dismay of my classmates, I love tests that consist entirely of rigorous proofs, which is why higher maths appeal to me. Honestly, I think a lot of people consider math hard because of the stigma it has recieved. For example, Most of my classmates had come to calculus hearing that it was a terrible math which was harder than anything they had done before, with an open mindset, I managed to get a 105+ in the course, it is all in your perspective of the subject. Likewise, I had bad memories of highschool chem. therefore, chem 101 was a lot harder for me.
Another thing people mistakenly believe is that a) People who are good at math are good at science and arithmetic and the converse also holds true. Honestly, i am terrible at balancing chemistry equations and I recieved a lot of points off because of unit confusion. Therefore, I think it isn't rigor of brainpower that defines a brain, but abstract ability: a person who can think in the most abstract terms will make a good math mathematician, a person who is good at defining applied stiuations would be a good chemist or physicist.

At 1:28 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Still, I have to agree and disagree, although I love your comment about how you struggle with units. I think a lot of otherwise smart people have that problem, and it doesn't mean you're stupid by any means. You just have a find a way that works for you. The way they taught it in school didn't work for me! But I found a way that works consistently.

I think the BEST people in ALL fields are able to abstract the details away. You have to see the patterns and know which parts matter, and be able to look ACROSS fields for parallels that help you think about new models.

At the end of the day, the most important things in ALL fields are pretty abstract, because usually where we need to do the most work is where we don't have applied methods yet to test things directly. So what we're trying to get to is the abstract part. We just have different ways of getting there.

I personally think that which field you choose to go into is determined by your interests, which may or may not correlate with where you felt the most encouragement.

I loved calculus, it made a lot more sense to me than anything that came before it. But I was not encouraged to do math past about 2nd grade, and never felt any deep attachment to it. Ultimately it didn't spark my imagination like some of the more applied fields do.

Maybe that's because it wasn't taught as well as these other areas were taught to me.

I don't think any of that means I'm less intelligent than people who do math for a living. It's just that our imaginations are fueled in different ways. I'd rather work on what excites me, but I think that's as much emotional as it is anything else. Which is probably why it's such a rollercoaster some days.


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