Athene Donald's Blog

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

The Players in Physics Meets Biology

Posted by Athene Donald on September 1, 2010

Today has been an interesting day at the Physics Meets Biology meeting, I mentioned a couple of days ago.  The talks were diverse as one would expect from the community ranging from insect adhesion (Matthew Anyon from Hull), through the theory of helical swimmers (Frank Julicher) to perhaps the more obviously ‘physicky’ elegant single molecule bionanotechnology from Hermann Gaub. We also had a couple of presentations from the EPSRC and BBSRC.  We are delighted they engage with us, but I think collectively we continue to feel that the gaps between them remain. Maybe it is a chicken and egg situation: potential PI’s look at the websites and feel whatever is they want to do doesn’t fit squarely anywhere so get discouraged from applying; the research councils then say that there aren’t grants coming in to them in this area.  Hermann Gaub was right on the ball, though, when he reminded us that when he was part of the IOP/EPSRC 2005 review team for Physics the concern about interdisciplinary work being batted between the research councils was a concern made very clear to them.  The remit query introduced by the EPSRC may go some way to mitigate the problem, but it certainly doesn’t solve it.

The other encouraging aspect of this meeting is the attendance. 120 registrants many from UK universities and research institutes, but also a pleasing number of contributed presentations from as far away as India. The numbers of students present is also very positive. The topic is thriving in our universities, even if still there are a significant number of research-intensive universities whose physics departments haven’t yet entered the field.  Data from the recent IOP Survey of Academic Appointments in Physics shows just how paltry staff numbers are compared with the (STFC funded) sub-disciplines of astronomy and high energy physics: in 2008 a mere 2.7% were declared to be working in biophysics and biological physics, compared with 15% in high energy physics and a whopping 23.3% in astronomy and astrophyics. The numbers in biological physics have increased marginally (from 1.9% in 2004), but it is still a tiny proportion of active staff.

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