After finishing my a-levels, I was torn between studying maths and medicine.
Unsettled due to my inability to decide, I began studying pure maths in Heidelberg. After receiving a scholarship in Bavaria, I switched subjects to medicine in Würzburg. Though I didn’t regret this decision for a second, my interest in maths remains unsatisfied.
Talking to students and graduates of both fields – maths and medicine – lead me to think that I would have to decide. Do I want to go down the path of maths or the one of medicine? It seemed like there was no intersection between those fields.
I was desperate. For my whole life, teachers, parents, and I have preached to myself that I’d always follow my curiosities. The decision between maths and medicine seemed like a dilemma to me. At some point, I figured that dilemmas are only a thought construct to help us make sense of the world.
That means a dilemma is only a dilemma if I believe it is one (at least in this case). Changing the way I think about the intersection of maths and medicine has been a game-changer.
Just for the sake of clarity: I know that there is a broad intersection of mathematical and medical knowledge in the realm of bioengineering, biotechnology, biophysics, etc. Yet, following such studies usually doesn’t allow you to practice medicine later on.
People of Maths and Medicine
Not that many people practice medicine (about 0,5% of the German population). And only a small fraction of these people have an interest in maths or related fields at the same time. Fortunately, the internet is a great way to find role models when it comes to combining maths and medicine.
The first person I stumbled upon was Uğur Şahin. You may know him as the founder of BioNTech. It’s a German biotech startup that applies mRNA technology to produce COVID-19 vaccinations.
Uğur has a background in medicine. He was an extraordinary student, completed his studies in medicine with distinction, and soon specialized in experimental oncology as a clinician and scientist before founding several biotech startups.
This alone sounds impressive. Yet, there is one fact that struck me about his curriculum. Right after graduating from medical school, he did a bachelor’s in pure mathematics!
Now, he says that he has always loved the problem-solving aspect of maths and also used it to predict the extent of the COVID crisis in early 2020.
For me, Ugur was the first person to prove that it was possible to combine maths and medicine. May it only be for the sake of pure interest, you never know what it’s good for.
Doing some more research on the Internet, I found another guy called Juan Klopper. On his personal blog, he describes himself as a data scientist specializing in deep learning for healthcare.
He received training as a medical doctor – even as a surgeon – and still daily practices medicine. He’s one of the first people I’ve seen that brings together maths, data science, practical medicine, and education. What’s even more intriguing: Mr. Klopper self-studied maths. He used Coursera courses and the like to meet his curiosity for both fields – maths, and medicine.
Still, there are more exciting people out there who are interested in both subjects.
One of them, for example, is Kumar Thurminella. He is an MD/PhD student split between the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the University of Cambridge.
As an applied mathematician/software engineer turned future physician, he is excited to apply his computational and mathematical background to help in the discovery of mechanisms behind inflammatory diseases of the gut.
Btw, if you know more of those “maths-medicine-people”, please let me know!
The working field of Juan Klopper and Kumar Thurminella, namely computational maths, is a great point to change perspective from the present to the future.
The Future of mathematical medicine
During the last years, medicine has been transformed by data science. AI and Machine Learning allow us to diagnose much more efficiently and some radiologists even fear being rendered obsolete by computer technology.
While this is still a dystopia, Dr. Bertalan Meskó, founder of the „Medical Futurist Institute“ believes that in no way doctors will become obsolete – only the ones who don’t adapt to the proceeding technology will, as it has always been the case in history.
Since this article is not about AI in medicine, you can find more about it here.
The point I want to make is that maths and computer science will become indispensable in the medical field.
One of the biggest intersection points of maths and medicine is genetics. Basically, you can break down genetics in a simple manner. There is a long code, consisting of a repeating combination of the letters “ACTG”. You want to encode this whole mystery and thereby find out how the human genome works together. Finding out the relation between certain genes, or discovering the mechanisms of epigenetics, are quite mathematical-ish problems to solve.
In her book, “Why study mathematics”, Cambridge professor Vicky Neale beings a chapter with the words: “Maths saves lives”. This is of course an allusion to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis where maths has helped to answer life-depending questions.
Modeling the spread of viruses has been crucial as a base layer for governmental decision-making. Eventually, all of those models rely on solving differential equations which require thorough mathematical understanding.
If you are interested, check out the book – it perfectly demonstrates why maths and medicine must be seen as two deeply connected subjects. The list of applications goes on, from image diagnosis software to simulating drug effects.
As a bottom line, it’s not only the academic satisfaction that can be gained from combining medicine and maths – it’s also the positive future outlook.
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