Demystifying Maths and Computers

Many students who choose biological subjects have a self-proclaimed fear of maths and few have coding experience.  To interest them in statistical equations or the use of lines of code is a difficult task. Yet this is exactly what Dr Emma Finlay, a lecturer in the School of Biotechnology, has successfully mastered.

An expert in bioinformatics, Dr Finlay has the unusual skill of making statistics interesting to a cohort of students who might ordinarily run a mile from crunching numbers.

“Students might have a great interest in studying a biological subject but have little or no desire for maths or computing,” she said. “I have to convince them that in the world we live in there is a greater focus on large scale data analysis and visualisation and that these are essential skills.”

To convince students of the need for statistics, Dr Finlay works backwards. This means she starts with the end subject of a biological issue that is of interest and then explains how a conclusion can be reached and supported by evidence. 

“I try to demystify the subject for students and explain why we need to be using statistics in the context of their work and how it will help,” she said. “When I’m teaching, I will always give them sample code and help them understand it before asking them to create anything themselves and this is certainly appreciated. I speak as a geneticist who learned how to apply statistical methods and use large datasets to answer biological questions, not as someone from a background in pure maths or computer science.”

Dr Finlay said communication is key in helping others learn and understand a science subject. All scientists should be able to explain their own specialist research at different levels and to different audiences, but teaching is about taking wider subjects and bridging the gap between what a student already knows and will need in the future. This is quite an achievement when you look at the material Dr Finlay is teaching like the collation and organisation of data in Statistics.

“One of the things I tell my students is that you can take an overwhelming mass of figures and it will mean nothing. But if you take those figures and draw a picture a narrative will emerge,” she said. “Statistics is about taking a mass of data and finding the important pattern in it.”

Dr Finlay is always exploring ways of bettering the learning process for her students. For example, a piece of research she is working on explores how taking an introductory module on statistics in the first year of study can make the topic less daunting the following year. 

“We looked at student performance and feedback on a second year module and showed that those who took the introductory module both performed better on average than those who did not and also had a more positive attitude to statistics and understanding of how they will use it in the future. That confidence and willingness to learn and experiment is crucial. I tell the students they are learning problem solving and methods of approach, they can always Google details of how to write code as long as they have the creativity to come up with the overall strategy.”