Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Maths in Science - Jack Szostak

Professor Jack Szostak is a Nobel Prize winning geneticist. He is ranked as one of the top 50 most influential scientists in the world today. His work that led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize related to his research on the functioning of the ends of chromosomes. He has also produced the world's first artificial yeast chromosome and continues to use his research in genetics to explore the origins of life on earth.

Professor Szostak very kindly agreed to answer 10 questions for me about his experience with maths and how he uses it in his work..

Here is what he had to say.

The Questions:

1. Describe what maths lessons were like for you at school.

I don’t remember much about the lessons as such, but I do remember learning about fractions when I was quite young, and a bit later about quadratic equations, and getting very excited about these things!  I also liked learning about the beginnings of math, for example, how much the ancient Greeks were able to figure out (like the size of the earth) using simple math.

2. Was the maths that you learnt at school useful to you later in life?

Basic maths has been very important, it comes into almost everything in the lab. Its not that I use advanced math very often, but its necessary for understanding how a lot of our lab methods work.  Some people in my lab know and use much more math, for example in doing computer simulations of how molecules move and react.

3. How good do you need to be at mental arithmetic to do calculations in your head?

I think its really useful to be able to do rough calculations in your head, just so you have a quick sense of whether an answer is reasonable or not.  This can save a lot of time and effort.

4. Mathematics teaches us that you can put two things together to make a new thing. Is this important in what you do?

I’m not exactly sure what you mean by this, but we’re always on the lookout for new and surprising things, and often a bit of math is helpful in figuring out if a surprising result is likely to be real or not. 

5. Mathematics is about finding patterns. Do you need to look for patterns, or exceptions to patterns, in your research?

Sometimes, for example when we’re studying the copying of DNA or RNA, we look at a lot of sequences (long strings of the letters A,G, C and T).  It takes some math, mainly statistics, to look at how accurate the copying has been, and to tell if different copying conditions really change the accuracy or not. 

6. Mathematics also teaches us about balance and equality. Is this idea useful in your research?

Perhaps in the sense that we may for example measure something in different ways, and use simple math to see if these different measurements are consistent.

7. Mathematics helps us to represent quantities and measurements numerically. Do you do this in your work?

Yes, we are always measuring things, for example, how fast a reaction goes, or how accurate a DNA or RNA copying reaction is.

8. Is estimation good enough or do you need to measure things accurately?

That depends a lot on the experiment.  Its nice to be as accurate as possible, but sometimes a rough estimate is all you need to understand whats going on in an experiment.

9. How do you use statistics to analyse your results?

Yes, we use simple statistics all the time.  For example, we might repeat an experiment several times to get error bars on a measurement, so we can tell if one experimental condition really gives a different result from another condition.

10. Do you have any other insights to offer into how you use maths in your work?

I would say that the study of biology is changing in ways that involve more maths than before.  There is a whole field of ‘bioinformatics’ which is the mathematical and computer-aided analysis of DNA sequences.  Also, studying how the brain works is becoming quite mathematical in surprising ways.  So learning more maths, even if you don’t know exactly how you’ll use it, will always turn out to be helpful.

Thank you Professor Szostak for your generosity and support 
of the "Maths in Science" project!


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