Why choose between bio and comp sci?

Published: January 17, 2012
The writer is assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and tweets @mhzaman

The writer is assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University and tweets @mhzaman

It was the summer of 1993, and at 16, I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I had to choose either biology or mathematics, or as the system put it between ‘pre-engineering’ and ‘pre-medicine’. There was no way, that I could study both. I did not want to be a doctor, or an engineer, instead I wanted to study chemistry. I protested against the system, but I was told that there were no options because ‘it has always been this way’.

Torn between these two choices, I sought advice from a lot of people. After a lot of discussions, I decided to opt for pre-engineering or simply mathematics over biology. Fast forward two decades later and I realised that it was the right choice given bad options. But it didn’t have to be so. The choice between mathematics and biology is artificial, unnecessary and in today’s day and age, highly counterproductive.

As a researcher at the interface of mathematics and biology, I find it sad that we are still forcing our 16-year-olds to choose between two subjects that, over the years, have seen a deeper connection. Any way you look at it, these areas have become major engines of growth in countries from China to the US, from Germany to Singapore.

Unfortunately, we are headed in the opposite direction. While innovation is what our country needs desperately, a recent ‘innovation’ in our curriculum is forcing our 14-year-olds to choose between biology and computer science! While I am cognisant that the growth opportunities in computer science are many, however, it cannot and should not replace a fundamental discipline in ninth grade. I have seen a number of high school education models, but nowhere in the developed world or even developing world for that matter, is computer science offered in lieu of biology. Perhaps, our boards feel that the society has matured to the point that we are now giving our 14-year-olds the same absurd choice that we were giving our 16-year-olds.

I am not suggesting that everyone studying science in either grade 11 and 12 should be required to study both mathematics and biology. That would be a travesty of the same magnitude as the current system. Instead, I am only arguing that we should give the opportunity to those who want to study both. Those who opt for this would have a world of opportunities in front of them at the very least. They will be the torchbearers of biotechnological innovation in Pakistan and will have the potential to address the most pressing health challenges of the sixth most populous nation in the world.

Now, let us for the sake of argument, look at the long-term impact of this option. From the technology side, our country is in desperate need of innovations in health and medicine. Whether it is improving the health technology infrastructure or coming up with novel medical solutions, the era of biotechnology and biomedical engineering demands us to think seriously about these fields. Put simply, if you have never had biology after grade 10, there is no way you can create a cadre of biomedical engineers that we desperately need.

The argument for allowing students to study biology and mathematics does not end here. Our doctors can also benefit from learning a little bit more mathematics. Not studying mathematics, in any form, after grade 10 is absurd. As a result of these unnecessary barriers, we are stifling creativity at all levels. Our engineers are unable to address problems in biology or medicine because they are suspicious of the discipline and unable to consider biology as a quantitative subject. On the other hand, our medical professionals have an unfounded fear of all things quantitative. This mutual distrust of disciplines has created a huge gulf between our schools of medicine and colleges of engineering. They are unable to join forces and sit across the same table to address national issues even when they are less than a mile apart from each other.

I am sure that the officials at various boards across the country will give practical reasons of logistics for having the current system. But I ask them, since when did logistics trump national interest? Why do we allow artificial reasons of practicality to dictate education, innovation and development? Just because something has always been done a certain way, does not mean that it has to be that way, particularly when it is stifling growth, creativity and innovation. The education system needs to cater to national needs and interests of development, not to the status quo.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Jan 17, 2012 - 11:36PM

    nice article, really liked it


  • Jan 18, 2012 - 12:03AM

    Very interesting article, and something which parents of young students should be well aware of. Everything is multidisciplinary nowadays, and if one needs to excel in this day and age, then open-mindedness and a willingness and motivation to learn new things should be adopted into ones personality.


  • Cautious
    Jan 18, 2012 - 12:13AM

    Sounds like the decision my son faced – when he asked around the general response he got was that anyone can master biology (considered a simple subject by many/most) but few can really master advanced mathematics/Chemistry. Most undergrad students who want to be doctors stay away from math and chemistry because they want to maintain a high grade point average which is required in the competition to get into a good medical school.


  • Balma
    Jan 18, 2012 - 1:43AM

    Try to understand one thing.
    When Lord McAuley designed India’s education system….in addition to destroying the existing Muslim and Hindu education systems, it created an educated babu class that was lakeer kee Faqir. Their idea was to create munshis, engineers, physicians, and vakeels who could do the immediate job assigned to them but were not trained for research or critical thinking.
    So for example, an English Engineer would design VT in Bombay or King George Medical college’s building in Lucknow or Frere Hall in Karachi, but it would be desi engineers doing number crunching. That system created ‘computers’ out of desis, and not philosophers and thinkers.
    Today it has extended to producing work force for running a foreign designed system in Pakistan or to produce cheap labor for US and Europe. Additionally, Pakistani and Indian engineering and medical schools train cheap labor for US and Europe. Therefore, no one is interested in doing what you propose. The idea is not to produce any bio-informatics experts in Pakistan for Pakistan, for example.


  • Rabia Umar Ali
    Jan 18, 2012 - 9:24AM

    A very enlightening subject and very well articulated too. It is definitely going to help those parents who are at the crossroads of helping teenagers decide their priorities in life. I strongly believe that it is a major decision and at that tender age one small mistake can make or break careers. You are turning into a policy maker educationist, doctor!


  • Usman Shahid
    Jan 18, 2012 - 10:07PM

    A nice article.

    local and international testing system in Pakistan or UK are just useless these days, we must follow the example of Finland


  • Farhan
    Jan 19, 2012 - 3:22AM

    I agree completely. These are funny divisions. Our system is not producing critical thinkers rather input-output zombies programmed to run a certain code may they be engineers, doctors or mullahs. We must introduce more combinations and better curriculum as well


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