Carreers in Theoretical Biology

Richard Gordon

President, Canadian Society for Theoretical Biology Professor in the Department of Radiology Adjunct Professor of Physics and Electrical & Computer Engineering Health Sciences Centre Room ON-104 University of Manitoba, Winnipeg R3A 1R9, Canada

This career guidance brochure for high school and undergraduate students is a minor update of: Gordon, R. (1993). Careers in theoretical biology. Carolina Tips 56(3), 9-11.

Printed copies of the original, with colored illustrations, may be requested from:

Carolina Biological Supply Company, 2700 York Road, Burlington, NC 27215-3398 USA, Phone: (910) 584-0381, Fax: (910) 584-3399, Internet: 27215-3398 USA, Phone: (910) 584-0381, Fax: (910) 584-3399, Internet:

who have provided permission for transmission on Internet of this version.

What is Theoretical Biology?

Theoretical biology may be defined as the application of reason to biology. In this sense, every biologist is, at least part of the time, a theoretical biologist. However, the daily goal of a theoretician is to explain the biological world. The theoretical biologist's product is a theory, an idea, not an observation or an experimental result, though it is based on them. This is what sets the theoretical biologist apart from other biologists.

The theoretical biologist delves deeply into all the data available, comes up with unexpected relationships, tries to quantify them using all the tools of reason (math, logic, computers, etc.), and makes specific predictions about the outcome of future experiments and observations. Sometimes a critical experiment would never have been done without the inspiration of your theory in the first place. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your theory proven correct.

Examples of Theoretical Biology in Action

Let's consider some practical problems. How many fish can we take from the ocean? If we catch most of the fish of reproductive age, then after the current fingerlings grow up, there won't be another batch to replace them. We may find the fishery crashing a few years later, and then recuperating. Can we avoid these ups and downs? How do we account for the effects of pollution, habitat destruction, poaching, or stocking from hatcheries? A theoretical biologist formulates models, math, and computer programs to make predictions about how the fish population will change. The equations may have chaotic solutions, which means that what happens is sensitive to small changes. The theoretical biologist may be driven to politically unpopular conclusions. Fisheries represent but one small part of our environment. We need theoretical biologists working on the problems of our impact on the biosphere, and what we could do about it. With the environmental changes and plant and animal extinctions we are causing, time is short, and we need answers soon. Theory is essential, because we have only one earth to experiment with.

Consider a medical problem. We know that x-rays can cause cancer, yet they also provide marvelous images of the inside of the body. These images are often calculated by computer programs running inside computed tomography scanners. How can we get the best pictures for the smallest dose of x-rays that will lead to accurate diagnoses? Does the math tell us how to design a better scanner?

At a more philosophical level, consider the problem of evolution. Is natural selection a sufficient explanation for why we have so many different species of plants and animals on earth? Why do they seem to have become more complicated over geological time? Can we predict the long term evolutionary effects of the present round of human caused extinctions? Can we formulate theories relating the DNA molecule to evolution and recreate extinct organisms?

How does the brain work? There are trillions of nerve and other cells in our brains. What is their relationship to our thought processes? Are we in any sense computers? What is consciousness, and can we explain it and simulate it with "artificial intelligence" from our present scientific concepts, or is something new needed? As theoretical biologist Wendy Brandts asks, "Are life forms essentially different from physical and chemical systems, even though they are comprised of them?"

Theoretical biologists cover all of biology, and are invading areas of philosophy, sociology and public policy. It is an exciting time to be a theoretical biologist, because so many tough problems are starting to yield. Colleges are beginning to offer courses in theoretical biology. Biology is maturing, explaining the quantitative how and why of living organisms. Theoreticians and experimentalists are beginning to respect one another and work closely together.

Where do Theoretical Biologists Work?

Most theoretical biologists work as professors in universities in all major faculties (Table at end). There is no single best way to prepare to become a theoretical biologist. For the professions, a degree that matches that of one's colleagues means a comparable salary and advancement prospects and a better chance you'll be listened to.

There is a shortage of professors predicted for the near future and an "explosion" of activity at the research level in theoretical biology, so if you prepare now, in high school and college, you will be ready to take advantage of it.

How Does One Get an Education in Theoretical Biology?

The many ways of entering theoretical biology and the newness of the field make it necessary to design your own education. Today's theoretical biologists vary widely in their career paths, and they often cross from one discipline to another.

The best way to become a theoretical biologist is to become an apprentice to one. The typical way of doing this is to become a graduate student, but why wait? It may be better to seek out a mentor early in your career, during your first year in university or even while still in high school. You can request names of nearby theoretical biologists from the societies listed below.

Ask if summer or part time jobs are available. If jobs are not immediately available, there is no better way to get someone to try to create a paying job for you than to start off as a volunteer helping them with their research. My most productive paid students have been high school students and undergraduates who started as volunteers. By volunteering you will learn many valuable skills and gain experience you just can't find in the lecture hall, and sometimes you can get credit hours for it, so be sure to check out that possibility. Don't be afraid to try again with someone else if it doesn't work out the first time.

There is one other tremendous value in finding a mentor early. Much science and math teaching in the first years of college is carried out in huge, impersonal classes. The dropout rate is enormous, and it may be hard to retain your motivation to stay in science, let alone in theoretical biology. One of the best ways to retain your spark is to have a job, paid or not, in someone's lab. That is where the real science occurs. It also gives you a home base in an otherwise large institution, not just a locker and a student number.

How Much Math Do I Need?

There is a statistical correlation between the amount of math one learns and how much one earns later in life, regardless of your final career choice: "More math means more money" (Science 243, 314, 1989). It is as simple as that. Think money next time you're wondering about why you should care about that stupid x and y. If money is not motivation enough, then think about this. Mathematics is the sharpest tool of rational thought. While there is not always a mathematical solution to every problem in biology, the discipline of mathematics provides practice in clear thinking: expressing one's assumptions, testing them out, and predicting their consequences. Biological problems seem sooner or later to yield to mathematical formulations.

Most theoretical biologists, though not all, have a substantial background and ability in mathematics. There is a subtle difference between mathematical biologists and theoretical biologists. Mathematical biologists tend to be employed in mathematical departments and to be a bit more interested in math inspired by biology than in the biological problems themselves, and vice versa. Mathematical maturity ranges widely, from those who found a need for mathematics late in their careers and were forced by the problems they tackled to train themselves in mathematics, to those who loved math, or physics, or computing before anything else and found ways to apply this love to biological problems. Excellent places to learn math, in addition to the obvious departments, are in physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science, statistics and business courses.

Math goes well beyond introductory algebra and calculus. Attend additional math courses, whether or not required. Audit them without the pressure of grades and exams (sometimes at no charge) simply to gain knowledge. One student audited math courses before taking them for credit because she had trouble with math. I promised myself I would take one math course every semester while trying to decide on chemistry or physics, and got my undergraduate degree in math. I turned into a theoretical biologist while doing my doctorate in chemical physics. This mixture is actually recommended, though seldom practiced: "Associated with this glamorisation of the biologist is a misconception, especially prevalent among high-school students, that the biological sciences are 'soft' sciences. However, today more than ever, analytical and experimental approaches are essential and require that zoologists be well-trained in the basic sciences of chemistry, physics and mathematics" (Canadian Society of Zoologists, 1991. Careers in Zoology. )

Most theoretical biologists are breaking new ground and work in many fields at once. Therefore they cannot afford to be constrained by curricula designed by non-theoretical biologists. Look for courses in differential equations, finite elements, advanced calculus and linear algebra, numerical and nonlinear methods, mathematical physics, chemical physics, stochastic processes, fractals, chaos, image and signal processing, pattern recognition, perturbation analysis, population dynamics, etc. Attend seminars and journal clubs. While these are generally oriented towards graduate students and professors, and may often be over your head, you will usually find you are welcome and will learn much from frequent exposure to the language of mathematics and other disciplines. At least go for the free donuts.

Computers in Theoretical Biology

Despite its elegance, today's mathematics is not up to solving many biological problems. For this reason, computers are rapidly becoming a central tool of thought in biology. Spreadsheet and graphics programs permit us to pull together and visualize vast quantities of data. Microscopes are sold with computer vision systems and robotic, motorized stages and focussing knobs. Computers make possible new forms of biological imaging: confocal scanning laser microscopy, 3D x-ray microscopy, the visualization and design of biological molecules, and digital satellite pictures of the earth, showing us what biological resources we have to work and live with. Mathematics itself has been computerized, since computers can manipulate symbols as well as numbers and pictures. The human genome project is a vast compilation of the string of chemical symbols representing our DNA molecules.

Any experience you can get in using computers is likely to help you become a theoretical biologist. But remember it's a tool: precise formulation of a computer program for a biological problem requires a keen understanding of the biology and mathematics involved; otherwise: garbage in, garbage out.

Finally, don't forget that computers are used for communicating with people. Try to get on electronic mail or bulletin boards, and locate your peers who are also interested in theoretical biology. They'll be your colleagues and collaborators later.

Do I Also Have to be an Experimentalist?

The short answer is yes, because as a theoretical biologist you will often find that the measurements or observations you need simply haven't been done. At this point, you have three choices:

  1. do what you can with the available data;
  2. seek an experimental biologist to help you;
  3. do the experiments yourself.

Many theoretical biologists end up also being good experimentalists (and vice versa, as data draws one towards desiring a theoretical explanation). Collaborations sometimes work, and often last for years. But you can only understand the reliability and richness of data by getting some yourself. Thus training as an experimentalist is very important for theoretical biologists. Experiment at home: most biological supply companies accept orders from individuals. The best training is in someone's lab, going beyond what you get out of laboratory courses.

Theoretical biologists are somewhat like square pegs in round holes. Being a part-time experimentalist reduces this necessary tension, which will last so long as vast areas of biology remain near virgin territories for theoretical understanding. You need a lot of self-motivation. As one senior theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen put it: "Theoretical biology is intended to stand in the same relation to experimental biology as theoretical physics does to experimental physics. You should pursue a 'career' in Theoretical Biology if, and only if, you love it. That is, if and only if a day would be unbearable without it."

What to Read


You will find hundreds of theoretical biology books in any university library. Here are some for starters:

Read as many biographies and autobiographies of scientists and mathematicians as you can find. Young women interested in theoretical biology could also find it valuable to read books such as:

Ainley, M.G. (ed.) 1990. Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science. Montreal: Vehicule Press.

In my personal mailing list, 13% of theoretical biologists are women.


You might be surprised how soon you can start reading the scientific literature. Write for reprints, asking for "related articles" and the author's personal bibliography. That way you can get an in depth look at their work and careers. Here's a sampling of journals:

For keeping up with science in general, subscribe to: Discover, Nature, New Scientist, Omni, Science, Science Digest, Science News, Scientific American.

Many journals offer lower subscription rates for students, especially when they are members of an associated society.


Asociacion Latiniamericana de Biomatematica, Dr. Carlos A. Leguizamon, President, Biomathematics, Department of Radiobiology, Atomic Energy Commission, Av. del Libertador 8250, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Phone: (541) 782-0319, Fax: (541) 703-2645, Internet:

Canadian Society for Theoretical Biology, Dr. William Silvert, Secretary/Treasurer, CSTB, Habitat Ecology Division, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, P.O. Box 1006, Dartmouth, NS B2Y 4A2 Canada, Phone: (902) 426-1577, Fax: (902) 426-2256, Internet: Silvert@biome.Bio.Ns.Ca

Dutch Society for Theoretical Biology, Dr. Rob J. DeABoer, President, DSTB, Utrecht University, Padualaan 8, 5384 CH Utrecht, The Netherlands, Phone: 31 30 537570, Fax: 31 30 513655, Internet:

European Society for Mathematical & Theoretical Biology, Dr. Karl Hadeler, President, Biomathematik, Inst. Biol. II, Universitat Tubingen, Auf der Morgenstelle 10, D-72076 Tubingen, Germany, Fax: 49-7071-294-322.

Societe Francaise de Biologie Theorique, Dr. Pierre Auger, President, Biometrie, Universite Claude Bernard, Lyon 1,43, Boulevard du 11 Novembre 1918, 69622 Villeurbanne Cedex, France, Phone: (33) 72 43 13 44, Fax: (33) 78 89 27 19, Internet:

Society for Mathematical Biology, Dr. Torcom Chorbajian, Treasurer, P.O. Box 11283, 4648 Almond Lane, Boulder, CO 80301 USA, Phone: (303) 530-9406 voice and fax, Internet:

Join a biological society at student rates. See a reference librarian for addresses. Subscribe to some of the many free biology lists on Internet (gopher


Thanks go to Catherine Berg, Natalie K. Bjorklund, Wendy Brandts, Robert Clasper, Isla Crawford, Debbie Bazan, Donald R. Forsdyke, Efraim Halfon, Lionel G. Harrison, Neil J. Holliday, Sareli Joseph, Jennifer Lisakowski, Michael J. Lyons, Michael C. Mackey, Jay E. Mittenthal, James D. Murray, Alan S. Perelson, Brent Poole, Robert Rosen, Natalie Schito, Robin Shealy, Ian Silver, John M. Stewart, Ruwani Subramaniam, David Topper, Gail Wolkowicz and Michael Zuker for their comments.

Table 1: Employers of Theoretical Biologists

This table is based on the North American members of the Society for Mathematical Biology.

Employer Percent
Faculties of universities and colleges
Agriculture 3
Arts 1
Engineering 8
Medicine 22
Physical Education 1
Science 51
Hospitals 4
Business and government research laboratiories 6
Museums 1
Private Businesses 3