Scitech | Quantitative Biology comes to McGill

Exploring the natural world with numbers and stats

McGill went through a period of tremendous renewal in recent years, with many new faculty recruited from across disciplines in the Faculties of Engineering, Medicine, and Science”, stated Jacalyn Vogel, a professor in the Department of Biology and an associate member of the School of Computer Science.

Among these new hires, she explains, were researchers with backgrounds in the physical sciences and engineering, who had developed an interest in biological problems. Others came with training in biology and were looking to utilize the tools of computer science, mathematics, and biophysics in their field. These researchers came together to form the Quantitative Biology Initiative (QBI), an interdisciplinary group designed to foster collaborations between researchers and provide biologists with the mathematical and computational tools they need in their work. Vogel, who is a co-director of the initiative, says, “the QBI formed quite naturally – based on common interests and the need to share expertise and resources.”

These interdepartmental collaborations are reflective of a larger trend in medical and biological research, which is becoming more personalized and interdisciplinary. Partly due to the explosion in biotechnology, there is an increasing push to place biology on a firm mathematical and physical framework.

Steven Michnick, a professor of Biochemistry at Université de Montréal  and a member of the QBI, believes that “quantitative biology is becoming a dominant trend at the forefront of biomedical research,” since classical techniques are good at creating lists of parts of biological systems but not at explaining how the parts work together. He believes that “classical biology methods are poor at providing details of biological mechanisms [and] quantitative biology fills this gap.”

The growing collaborations between professors across departments at McGill laid the foundation for a corresponding undergraduate program. Frederic Guichard, also a professor of Biology and a co-director of the QBI, explains that the undergraduate Quantitative Biology option is designed to provide biology students with quantitative skills that are increasingly important in both medical practice and biology research, and also to expose them to quantitative fields like physics, math, and computer science that they may otherwise overlook.

The program begins with a core of biology classes and includes some introductory coursework in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and computer science. Students can then choose from one of two streams: Physical Biology or Ecology and Evolution. The first stream, Physical Biology, emphasizes interdisciplinary cell and molecular biophysics, with courses in organic chemistry, thermodynamics, and electricity and magnetism. The second stream concentrates on ecology, evolution, and statistics. Both offer options for interested students to explore mathematics and computer science further, or to pursue specializations in their chosen streams.

The strength and novelty of the program lies in the flexibility available to students to pick and choose from a wide variety of courses from across departments. Guichard says that this allows students to “define their own perspective and vision of what quantitative biology is all about.” Vogel, who is also the coordinator of the Quantitative Biology program, believes that the program will “foster rigor, boldness, and creativity,”  because it will allow students to work with professors with a wide range of expertise and give them the freedom to explore problems to which they may not have otherwise been exposed.

Though Quantitative Biology is currently only offered as an option within the Biology major, it is in the process of being approved as its own program by the Quebec government. Vogel is also designing a corresponding graduate program. Since the program’s origins lie in partnerships among researchers from different faculties, the research infrastructure of the program is especially strong. This also means that there are currently many opportunities available for undergraduates to become involved in this research.

Those interested should visit for more information about the both Quantitative Biology Initiative and the new undergraduate program.      

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