Some Advice to Young Mathematical Biologists
by Kenneth Lange
Recently, I read the provocative book Indiscrete Thoughts by
the well-known mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota , who just
happens to have served as my doctoral thesis advisor. Rota devotes
chapters 18 and 19 of his book to giving practical career advice to
mathematicians. I was so smitten by his writing that in preparing for
conference, I couldn't resist sharing his insights. Unfortunately,
I got carried away and enlarged on his maxims by adding my own and some
the wonderfully dictatorial rules of composition of Strunk and White
- Taking charge of your education
- Get a broad undergraduate education in the sciences, emphasizing
biology, chemistry, classical physics, applied mathematics, computer
science, and statistics.
- Don't be inhibited about taking courses outside your major
department. Ignore the self-serving admonitions of most departments to
- Take the minimum number of laboratory courses. You need to
understand techniques, not master them.
- Enroll in medical school if strongly motivated. You'll get a good
general education in human biology that will inform your judgment about
worthy research problems.
- Skip the prolonged residencies programs after medical school.
Do you want to reach middle age before you embark on research?
- Attend seminars and scientific conferences. Some talks are
incomprehensible, some trivial, and some platforms for boasting.
other talks will suggest avenues of research that would never have
- Finding and relating to a Mentor
- Choose someone who is interesting, has influence, and will devote
time to you. A good mentor will be your guardian angel.
- Follow his or her thesis advice unless you have a brilliant idea
- Be prepared for withering criticism and a total rewrite of the
drafts of your papers.
- Don't give up because your first thesis attempt doesn't pan out.
If your mentor has handed you a sure-fire project, then it probably is
- Rely on his or her advice about jobs, both at the start and
through your career.
- Don't continue to work solely with your advisor once you have
graduated. Review committees will comment on your lack of
- Writing style
- Write informative introductions. (Rota)
- Give lavish acknowledgments. (Rota)
- Choose a suitable design and hold to it. (Strunk and White)
- Use the active voice. (Strunk and White)
- Put statements in positive form. (Strunk and White)
- Use definite, specific, concrete language. (Strunk and White)
- Omit needless words. (Strunk and White)
- Express parallel ideas in parallel form. (Strunk and White)
- Make certain that the antecedent of every pronoun is clear.
- Avoid jargon and the introduction of unnecessary mathematical
- Don't copy Faulkner (long Germanic sentences) or Hemingway (a
succession of short, choppy sentences). Strive for variety in
and sentence structure.
- Read your prose out loud to test its cadence.
- Take the advice of colleagues, editors, and reviewers in revising
- Giving seminars
- Never underestimate the importance of a seminar to your career.
A good seminar presentation is almost as important as a good paper.
- Every lecture should make only one main point. (Rota)
- Never run overtime. (Rota)
- Prepare more than enough material and decide beforehand on a few
conveniently placed stopping points.
- Relate to your audience. (Rota)
- Give them something to take home. (Rota)
- Make sure the blackboard is (initially) spotless. (Rota)
- Start writing on the top left corner. (Rota)
- If you use transparencies or slides, don't make them too busy.
Use large print.
- Label the axes of graphs.
- Don't embarrass yourself by carrying out impromptu arithmetic
- Publish the same result several times. (Rota)
- You are more likely to remembered by your expository work. (Rota)
(Reserve for later in life.)
- In submitting a paper, match the journal to the content of your
- Avoid journals with especially long times to publication unless
their prestige merits an extra wait.
- If you are convinced that you have received an unfair review, be
willing to fight for the acceptance of your paper. Reply to criticisms
logically, not angrily.
- If your paper is finally rejected, use the comments of the
a basis for revision before you submit elsewhere.
- Getting and keeping a job
- Never ask someone to write a letter of recommendation whose
you are unsure of.
- Supply recommenders with your resume and statement of purpose.
- Never make enemies unnecessarily. Enemies wind up reviewing your
papers, grant proposals, promotion to tenure, and applications for
- Never make nonnegotiable demands unless you are prepared to live
with the consequences of being turned down.
- Never trust a department chair or, particularly, a dean you don't
already know. Get every deal in writing.
- All else being nearly equal, always choose the job at the more
- If you are inclined to boast, don't; if you are shy and not
to boast, do.
- Scientific collaborators
- Do not show your questioners the door. (Rota)
- Seek out laboratory biologists with a strong theoretical bent.
are the ones who can define problems for you.
- Respect the contributions of your collaborators. Every scientist
thinks his or her contribution is the crucial one.
- Organize joint seminars to find a common ground for
- Ask friendly laboratory scientists to verify your theoretical
- Remember, if grant money is involved, the principal investigator
of a grant has ultimate control of how the money is spent.
- Don't allow your name to be added to an inferior paper as a
- Work habits
- Every mathematician has only a few tricks. (Rota)
- Don't worry about your mistakes. (Rota) (Perfection is
and you will be remembered more for your successes than your failures.)
- Use the Feynman method (of keeping a dozen problems constantly in
and testing every new technique you learn against these problems.)
- Regularly read demanding scientific books outside your area of
- Be prepared to exit a field that is in decline.
- Develop a thick skin, but learn from your mistakes.
- Scientific ethics
- Never stoop to dishonesty. It destroys careers, corrupts the
scientific process, and erodes public support for science.
- Never engage in sexual harassment or ethnic denigration. These
are certain routes to disgrace.
- Don't alienate collaborators with fights about order of
Publish enough solo authored papers so that your reputation doesn't
hinge entirely on one collaboration.
- Don't call a press conference without good reason. Let the
review process work before you inject the media.
- Don't look down on good teachers. (Rota)
- Never lose your objectivity. Abandon your favorite hypothesis
when enough evidence accumulates against it.
Rota G-C (1997) Indiscrete Thoughts. Birkhäuser, Boston
Strunk W Jr, White EB (1959) The Elements of Style. Macmillan, New York