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Case Studies/A mathematical way to think about biology

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Video tutorials to help researchers, clinicians, and patient advocates learn about mathematical thinking at the interface between the physical sciences and biology, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.
"Excellent site for both basic and advanced lessons on applying mathematics to biology" — Tweeted by the National Cancer Institute Office of Physical Sciences-Oncology [1]


In 2009, the National Cancer Institute began funding the Physical Sciences-Oncology Network to bring physical scientists and biologists together to look at cancer in new ways [2]. To fully realize the potential benefit of this network, investigators must accomplish more than simply continuing the development of measurement technologies. Moore et al. have commented that previous "contributions [i.e. x-rays, PET, and MRI] leverage the technology development aspect from the physical sciences . . . but not other important aspects like methodology, practices and thought processes. What is different about the NCI’s PS-OC Program is the conviction that unique physical sciences and engineering approaches and principles can be integrated . . . in cancer research to yield a more fundamental understanding of the disease" [3].

One of these physical sciences "thought processes" is quantitative reasoning. Resources for developing this skill currently include introductory courses in quantitative biology. For example, Los Alamos National Laboratories hosts the invaluable q-Bio summer school [4]. However, mathematical prerequisites for these courses remain a difficulty for investigators trained in many life sciences fields.

A mathematical way to think about biology was developed to help address this challenge. The website is a collection of video tutorials to help biologists, clinicians, and patient advocates prepare for courses in quantitative biology [5]. The purpose of these videos is to provide familiarity with introductory topics often presented in quantitative biology courses and confidence to actively learn the more sophisticated concepts that are developed from these foundations.

To ensure broadest delivery of this resource, the slides and videos are made available under a CC BY-SA license.

The videos are produced by David Liao, a physicist (PhD, Princeton) in the Physical Sciences-Oncology Network.

License Usage

The slide decks and video tutorials are individually released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license.


Current open access initiatives require journal articles to be accessible free of charge after an embargo period. These mandates achieve "technical" openness. Achieving a more practical openness, however, requires more than uploading a record of research reports to a public repository of overwhelming walls of text and figures. The know-how to peruse scientific literature with ease must also be broadly distributed. It is preferable to release both software and underlying system libraries under GPL. Speaking loosely along the same lines of sentiment, it is likewise preferable to release, as free cultural works, both scientific literature and the instructional materials by virtue of which that literature becomes readable. Releasing the video tutorials under a CC BY-SA license communicates that the mathematical know-how described in these videos is a public good.

Impact of the Creative Commons

One of the videos in the series derives significantly from a research journal article. The author wanted to ask the journal under what licenses he could release the video. A decade ago, this would have required a long email explaining copyleft. Owing to educational outreach by the Creative Commons (and allied efforts by the Free Software Foundation, Wikipedia, and the Public Library of Science), awareness of free culture principles has greatly increased. This made it easy to refer to different licenses according to their abbreviated CC names during discussion with the journal (the journal granted permission to release the video under CC BY-SA).