Victoria Neumark describes how the combination of maths and biology opens up a new field
Should pupils study A-level biology without maths? "They will close off exciting career opportunities if they do," warns Ian Bardrick of the Biochemical Engineering Education Scheme (BEES).
Based at University College London, BEES is embarked on a three-year curriculum development programme with 18 secondary schools nationally. Its aim: to raise standards in maths, science and technology. Specifically, to raise awareness of the dramatic openings at the interface of biology and engineering.
The importance of maths, says Mr Bardrick, cuts both ways. Those doing A-level mathematical science (maths, physics) need to know that if they add biology or chemistry they will be able to move into a vitally important field - making, for instance, a new material to replace cartilage in injured joints. Conversely, biology students who add maths or physics will be able to move into biochemical engineering and, for example, into a pharmaceutical industry that uses micro-organisms to make medicines to defeat previously incurable diseases.
Our universities produce 10,000 biology graduates but only 50 biochemical engineers a year. In an effort to shift this balance, Ian Bardrick has been training teachers from four York schools involved in that city's "Schools Learning Together" project. The teachers enthuse their students with a mini-engineered bioreactor, a piece of equipment which resembles a very fast food-blender. The bioreactor is fitted with baffles to stop the liquid moving. So fast is the agitation that it infuses the liquid with air, enabling micro-organisms to absorb more oxygen. The micro-organisms then react usefully, giving off products like penicillin.
Many secondary metabolites, as these products are called, are used in medicine, so pupils who take part in the BEES bioreactor experiments will have first-hand experience of cutting-edge science in action; and maths and physics students will be able to see the importance of their subject knowledge in biochemical engineering.
Contact: BEES, Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering, UCL, Torrington Place, London WC1E 7JE. Tel: 0171 380 7745