Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Physics Meets Biology

Posted by Athene Donald on August 30, 2010

I am off to the Institute of Physics’ Physics Meets Biology meeting in Oxford later this week, organised by the Biological Physics Group, whose committee I have chaired for the last 3 years. We held our first meeting (with the same name and also in Oxford) 2 years ago, and I enjoyed it immensely. I would like to think it was a sparkling success; it certainly succeeded in bringing physicists and biologists together, and showcasing the many different strands that make up the field. I am hoping this years’ conference will be just as exciting and stimulating and, looking at the cast of international speakers we have, kicking off with Frank Jülicher, I am very optimistic. These meetings are wonderful opportunities to hear about work away from one’s immediate area and to meet people who share the same basic philosophy but work on different systems or use different tools. I hope we have a good turnout, despite the financial gloom!

The BPG was formed about 3 1/2 years ago, and has managed to get off to an excellent start in bringing the UK community together. Nevertheless, it is hard to reach all the people one wants – who may not be in Physics departments or members of the IOP, and so may not be aware of what we are up to. Aside from organising meetings  (which have ranged from this, our showcase event every 2 years, to  joint meetings with other groups in the IOP, to joint meetings with other organisations, and to simple 1 day events simply for our own members) we have other ongoing activities. One, very much driven by the IOP, is to try to prepare some teaching material to help those departments who don’t have staff who are confident to teach biological physics in any form. The lack of staff in many departments was an issue highlighted by the International Review of  Physics in 2005, and was one of the drivers for our group being set up. Another is to keep dialogue going with the research councils, notably the EPSRC and BBSRC, to make sure our discipline doesn’t fall through the cracks between the research councils, something our members are extremely concerned about. In the spring we were delighted when the EPSRC broadened the Physics remit explicitly to include Biological Physics.

Interdisciplinary meetings are a great pleasure and they each have their own particular slant.  There are various groupings in the UK which ostensibly cover some of this field, loosely termed biophysics (which I would distinguish from Medical Physics). The British Biophysical Society – who celebrated 50 years of existence earlier this summer with a major conference here in Cambridge – have their emphasis in a rather different place from BPG, and their meeting stressed biochemistry and structural biology much more than I would expect to see in Oxford. Each community needs its own focus, but it is important we maintain dialogue between the organisations, as indeed we try to do. Nevertheless I am sure that BPG has its own unique space and community, and I look forward to its continued growth and success. I have thoroughly enjoyed chairing the BPG committee for the last 3 years, and have found it a very rewarding task, but will now be passing the baton on after the elections at our AGM.

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