Biology degrees

All biology degree courses require good quantitative skills. It is not just statistics but a range of mathematical techniques that is required from basic ratio to modelling with differential equations. On most courses you will be taught the mathematics required during your first year, although some mathematical knowledge may be assumed. The topics you will cover in the first year will be mostly content from GCSE and AS level Mathematics. There will also be some, particularly the probability and statistics and higher level calculus which is from A level Mathematics.

Increasing numbers of students starting biology degrees have studied either AS or A level Mathematics.
“In 2013 the proportion of students undertaking Biology degrees who had A level maths was 38%, an increase from 26% in 2006 and 35% in 2009 (sourced from UCAS data). In 2013 a further 12% took AS Maths giving a total of 50% of Biology students taking some form of post-GCSE maths.” Mathematical transitions: a report on the mathematical and statistical needs of students undertaking undergraduate studies in various disciplines by Jeremy Hodgen, Mary McAlinden and Anthony Tomei.

Whilst the mathematical content may vary from university to university, there are many topics that are common to all courses:

  • Basic algebra such as solving linear equations and understanding power laws
  • Use of scientific notation and standard form; the ability to manipulate very large and small numbers
  • Probability models
  • Statistical techniques and hypothesis testing
  • Equations of straight line graphs
  • Modelling techniques
  • Exponential, Logarithmic and Trigonometric Functions
  • Calculus and Differential Equations

Overview of Mathematics covered in Biology Degrees

The table below shows typical areas of mathematics that might be studied in an undergraduate Biology degree course. The hyperlinked topics in red take you to examples of how this mathematics might be used in a Biology degree.

Straight Line Graphs Functions & Graphs Calculus
Equations of lines Exponentials Rates of Change
Reducing relationships to a linear form Logarithms Differentiation
Lines of best fit Trig Functions Integration
Rectangular Hyperbola Modelling using Differential Equations
Recognising different functions

Basic Algebra Number Probability Statistics
Solving equations Ratio Discrete Probability Distributions Averages
Using power laws Compound Units Permutations and Combinations Standard Deviation
Percentages The Normal Distribution Histograms
Standard Form Hypothesis Testing Using Cumulative Frequency Graphs
Estimation Goodness of Fit Tests Regression and Correlation

Example Careers

The work of the NHS Blood and Transfusion service is underpinned by the research of a team of mathematicians.
For more information on the careers of female Mathematicians see the Girls in Maths page.

Useful links

The following websites and books have useful information about the mathematical topics you will study during your Biology degree together with other resources to support your preparation for Biology at university:

BioNRICH - a section of the Nrich website with problems and articles specific to applications of Mathematics in Biology. It is for students aged 14 - 19 and is designed to complement and enhance the study of biology. Many of the examples in the table above are from this website.

BioMaths - a comprehensive blog of information on Maths in Biology Education, maintained by Jenny Koenig of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge.

Elementary Maths for Biologists - an online collection of resources for maths skills in the life sciences also by Jenny Koenig.

Handbook of Biological Statistics by John H McDonald - an online textbook which evolved from a set of notes for a Biological Data Analysis class at the University of Delaware.

Resources for Mathematics Education for Biology Students - a website that lists resources collected for the Quantitative Curriculum for Life Science Students project in the USA.

The Maths Centre - this site was developed by a group from the Universities of Loughborough, Leeds and Coventry and has been set up to deliver mathematics support to students looking for post-16 maths help.

Mathbench - University of Maryland supported modules that introduce students to the mathematics in introductory biology courses.

Mathematics for Biological Scientists By Mike Aitken, Bill Broadhurst, Stephen Hladky ISBN 9780815341369 - an undergraduate textbook which covers the mathematics necessary for biology students to understand, interpret and discuss biological questions.

Biomeasurement: A Student's Guide to Biological Statistics By Dawn Hawkins ISBN 9780199219995 - an introduction to the use of statistics in the study of the biosciences with an emphasis on why statistical techniques are essential tools for bioscientists.

Maths from Scratch for Biologists By Alan J Cann ISBN 9780471498353 - focuses on why numerical skills are useful to biologists and explains step by step how and why you need to tackle maths within the biological sciences.