What can I do with mathematics?

In the future, microarrays may enable an individualized approach to medicine.

Expressing Yourself

The state-of-the-art technology used by researchers to identify active (expressed) genes in cells is the microarray: a “gene chip” imprinted, not with circuits, but with DNA. Active genes of fluorescently tagged cell samples placed on the chip reveal themselves when they bind with their DNA complements on the chip. The amount of data generated by this microscopic activity is enormous: just one row in an array can have 15,000 points. Pattern recognition and image analysis are two fields which use mathematics to help extract important genetic information about several diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, from microarray data. In the future, microarrays may enable an individualized approach to medicine, in which your doctor could use these chips to diagnose disease and determine the best treatment for your unique genetic profile.

In one particular area of medicine, cancer research, the points in each column of an array can be thought of as genetic coordinates of samples from tumors. Yet there are so many coordinates that it is difficult to determine which tumors are similar. Algorithms employ statistics and different measures of distance in higher dimensions to group genetically similar tumors into “clusters” so that experiments can be done on treatments corresponding to the clusters. In one case, microarray technology not only distinguished between two different types of leukemia (verifying in the time it took to hit “Return” what had taken 35 years to discover) but also found different clusters within tumors that had been thought to be similar—resulting in clinical trials to confirm the distinction.

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For More Information

“Gene Chips and Functional Genomics,” Hisham Hamadeh and Cynthia A.Afshari, American Scientist, November–December 2000.

Article © AMS Mathematical Moments program

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While the main motivation to choose math as a major should stem from a combination of keen interest and high ability in math, students are naturally concerned about the opportunities available to a mathematics major or a mathematics teaching major after graduation. At this time, the math major appears to be in a better position than many other majors for employment in business, industry, government agencies, and teaching. The prospects are also good for well-qualified students to obtain support for graduate studies in either mathematics or mathematics education. Also a major in mathematics is excellent preparation for further study in many other fields.

In order to help you clarify your thoughts on what you want to get out of your collegiate experience as a math major, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Why do I like mathematics? What is it about math that attracts me to majoring in mathematics?
  • What type of mathematics do I like? Do I like the computational aspect? The rigor and logic? The problem solving experience? The theoretical aspect? Which content areas interest me?
  • What do I want to do for a career? Do I want to teach, or do I want pursue other avenues? If you want to teach, then:
    • what age group(s) do you want to teach? PreK, 1-6, 6-9, 9-12, college?
    • do you want to teach just mathematics, or do you want to have the flexibility to teach other fields as well?
  • If you are not interested in a career in teaching, then: are you interested in a career in business, industry, government, nonprofits, other alternatives?
  • How much education do I want to complete? Bachelors, Masters, or Ph.D.? Do I want to enter the work force right after graduation with the option to pursue graduate work later?
  • What do I need to do in order to further my career prospects?
  • What should I be doing academically to further my goals? Should I pick up a minor in another area? Should I try to double major?
  • What extracurriculars should I become involved in to further my goals? For example, should I get involved with the math club? Should I participate in the MCM Modeling Competition?
  • What types of work experience should I try to get to further my goals? Should I consider volunteer work experiences such as tutoring? Should I consider internships?
  • What organizations should I become involved in? What conferences or meetings might it be helpful to attend?


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