Science | DOI: 10.1145/1666420.1666427
CS and Biology’s
Biologists can benefit from learning and using the tools
of computer science, but several real-world obstacles remain.
“the central role of the computer in our
lives” will mandate that biologists learn
some foundational basics of computation such as algorithmic thinking and
some sort of formal expression.
“The advantages are not only in being able to do the things that are required in order to do modeling or more
computational biology,” says Piterman, “but this way of thinking can help
many fields of biology to communicate
better, and to harness computing better, by being able to share information
more formally. Maybe it’s less natural
to do it in biology, but the power of
computing makes it less than optimal
to avoid this.”
ThE CompatibiLity oF com- puter science and biology— two disparate yet increas- ingly symbiotic branches of knowledge—is becoming a
hot topic among academic scientists.
Recent publications in popular and
academic journals have called for mandating stronger computer and mathematics courses for undergraduate
biology majors. Those treatises have
been met by equally ardent responses
among some biologists claiming that
mandating additional background in
computer science and math will not
necessarily advance a budding biologist’s academic and career success.
Pho ToGrAPh by MAr TIn nEMEroFF, ru TGErs unIVErsI Ty
“To grossly oversimplify it, computer science is all about the binary, and in
biology, things don’t lend themselves
to binary distinction,” says John Timmer, the science editor of Arstechnica.
com, who has a Ph.D. in molecular and
cell biology. Timmer recently wrote
an opinion piece, “Should Biologists
Study Computer Science?”, that took
to task advocates of increased emphasis on undergraduate computer science and math. Timmer argued that
knowing how to use a given tool, and
having enough domain knowledge to
be able to flag outlying results, should
A new Jersey high school student works in a
Rutgers university lab as part of a research
project on decoding a DnA sequence.
be sufficient for most biologists.
“Obviously, computer scientists
A high-School Solution?
can do things that are far more subtle
than binary logic,” Timmer says, “but
the fact that the most basic concepts
in biology, like genes and species, ex-
ist along a full spectrum and can often
be defined using different definitions
doesn’t lend itself to definitive com-
puterized analysis very cleanly.”
Computer scientist Nir Piterman,
a research fellow at Imperial College,
says Timmer may be right, but that
The goal to strengthen biologists’ computer science and math backgrounds
faces a major obstacle within college
curricular structures. For instance, trying to design a quantitative thinking
and computer science offering that
would satisfy all fields of biology is extremely difficult. Also, students’ schedules are already filled with existing
requirements. Adam Siepel, assistant
professor of biological statistics and
computational biology at Cornell University, says the university is grappling
with this issue.
“There’s such a broad spectrum of
activities going on under the rubric of
biology, from what is essentially physiology to organismal biology, to ecology,” Siepel says. “These disciplines
have almost nothing to do with one another. I was part of a task force last year
that was reviewing the undergraduate