I'm a physics student who will join a theoretical biology/applied mathematics research group this September. I'll link some papers at the end for further context.

The main problem I have is that my last biology class was in 10th grade. While the mathematical part isn't that harsh, the biological side of things really does get me. I don't understand half the terms thrown around, or the general context of what is being studied. So what resources would you recommend?

Chemical Reaction Network Theory elucidates sources of multistability in interferon signaling

Transient hysteresis and inherent stochasticity in gene regulatory networks

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the Biology.SE. Please take the tour and carefully read through the help center to learn more about the site, including what is on-topic and what is not, and How to Ask a good question. In particular, this seems far too open-ended and is also likely to generate opinions rather than factual answers, both of which make this off-topic on this site. This makes it likely your question will be closed (I see one vote to do so and will reluctantly be adding one of my own). ... $\endgroup$
    – tyersome
    Jul 30, 2022 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ ... I have personally found when learning about a new area that starting with a relatively accessible and reliable source like Khan Academy is very helpful. Online platforms called MOOCs offer free (or very low cost) courses on a wide variety of subjects — two I am familiar with are Coursera and edX. Finally, textbooks with a good level of detail are also freely available online e.g. from NCBI. ——— Wikipedia can also be a good starting point if you check the references. $\endgroup$
    – tyersome
    Jul 30, 2022 at 21:36
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I would recommend talking to the principal investigator of the lab and asking him/her for some good introductory reviews. You can then chase down references from there, and do searches for terms/ideas you don't understand. Also, just talk to people in the lab! Many scientists are more than willing to explain their work in excruciating detail. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Jul 31, 2022 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ @MattDMo — This is good advice, but depending on their background (and wisdom) the PI may have little or idea how to effectively advise someone with the poster's lack of background knowledge. It also sounds like the OP has talked to people, but they are using a lot of unfamiliar terminology. While many of us are willing to explain, not as many can explain cutting edge research at a 10th grade level (and even fewer will be willing to do so) ... $\endgroup$
    – tyersome
    Jul 31, 2022 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @tyersome true, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who haven't even pursued those simple steps. I used to work in tech support for an antibody company, and my colleagues and I would get calls/emails all the time asking for us to interpret the results of Westerns, ELISAs, etc., b/c the person for whatever reason hadn't approached other people in the lab first. I see this a lot on Stack Overflow as well. People seem to be much more willing to ask strangers on the internet for help than the person at the desk right next to them. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Jul 31, 2022 at 20:52

1 Answer 1


I could tell you to buy "Stryer: Biochemistry". It has many chapters that you need, which are:

  • Gene regulation (Regulation on DNA, RNA, Protein level, etc.)
  • Signaltransduction (JAK/STAT pathway & general concepts)
  • Regulatory strategies (Product inhibition etc.)
  • Stem cell differentiation (French Flag model, specification vs determination)

Stryer also explains the biochemical machinery behind that, which is interesting. Your other paper mentions interferon signalling, which is part of the immune system. So you could buy "Janeway: Immunology" for that. You also mentioned cell fate determination, for that the best book imo is "Scott F Gilbert: Developmental Biology". They are awesome books, with tons of awesome pictures and are simply very very fun to read!

HOWEVER, these books are huge and contain many chapters that you will never need. So I might also tell you to just google stuff. For biology purposes my goto strategy is hammering this query into the search bar:

"pubmed review <biologic term I don't understand>"

For example when I google "genetic regulation network pubmed review" I get this pubmed link. Then you press "full text links". Then you realize there's a paywall. I would never recommend visiting a certain page (starts with sci and ends with hub) to circumvent that paywall.

So I keep searching and find another review from 2012. However it lacks those biological terms that you need. I tried finding some comprehensive reviews online about biological topics, however this kind of literature often focuses on flashy state-of-the-art topics that go into too much detail. So you might want to consider buying "Stryer Biochemistry", after all!

Or just ask your supervisor to buy those books and keep them in your research group. They are definitely worth it. And these books definitely know a lot more than anyone in a physical research group (including your PI). Yes, it will take you some time to look up those topics and read them, but I promise, they're written in the best and most understandable way possible (no background knowledge is necessary, unlike published papers!) and might save you and your whole research group a trip to the library or a lot of time and frustration trying to google terms that no one taught them.

It doesn't have to be the Stryer, maybe there are books that specialize on regulatory strategies in living beings. But it's a good start.


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