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 of Living Matter – More Thoughts on Interdisciplinary Working

Posted by Athene Donald on September 28, 2010

Over the next couple of days I’ll be at the annual Physics of Living Matter conference.  This is the 5th annual conference in Cambridge, and they have become a very firm fixture in many of our calendars. They serve to bring the community of physical and biological scientists together to listen to a combination of international and local speakers, with plenty of time for mingling and networking. In a university the size of mine, finding people who share common interests can be a challenge, particularly when they may lie far from one’s home subject and department.  When Alfonso Martinez Arias spearheaded the first Physics of Living Matter meeting back in 2006 it immediately stimulated enormous enthusiasm. Registration for this meeting was oversubscribed and that has, I believe, been true ever since. It touched a timely chord within the Cambridge community. It is hard to measure the ‘success’ of this.  At the time we had, in the form of Duncan Simpson, a Research Council funded interdisciplinary facilitator (the exact name of this role escapes me at this distance in time), and Duncan has continued to play a vital co-ordinating role ever since.  The diversity of activities that working at this physical-biological science interface potentially touches upon, means that having a dedicated scientist (rather than an administrator) acting as a mediator or go-between, bringing the practicing scientists together is through small meetings or just by passing on names is, if not absolutely vital, a real advantage.

To my mind, finding the right collaborator(s) is key.  Following on from this I want  to develop the ideas sparked by the comments that were previously made here by Becky based on an earlier piece by Sean Eddy. We seem to be approaching the problem in different ways, probably trying to achieve rather different aims or flavours of interdisciplinary working.  Personally I don’t think it is common for a single person to be able to tackle many of these problems simply on their own and, as employees of the University with teaching responsibilities in a department, academics probably need to retain at least some connection with their department’s discipline.  (Research institutes need not have this same requirement.)

One extreme version of a collaboration is ‘physicist has technique’ meets ‘biologist has problem’, but I think most collaborations are now much more subtle than this rather old-fashioned vision, particularly if it is to be a satisfactory collaboration.  The physical scientist is not just going to bring a technique to the table and hawk it around looking for a problem. Nor will they be satisfied just to act as a service to some biologist who wants, as I mentioned previously , just to compare and contrast a large number of different biological samples i.e. simply ‘look’ at the biologist’s samples.

However I don’t think this necessarily equates to the statement Becky made in her earlier post that

in the best cases what comes out is a new way of looking at the problem.

In many cases in my own experience, what comes out is new insight, but not necessarily a new paradigm. Collaborations can come and go, as interests change and evolve, but – to speak personally – if I want to take what I have learnt about protein aggregation using a milk protein to help me see if it is relevant to clinical manifestations of Parkinson’s disease, I need to find an expert in Parkinson’s disease or I am in trouble. But if I want to see if my experience on the milk protein is relevant to understanding the role of metals in Alzheimer’s plaques, the expert I need is likely to be someone quite different. And I am most certainly not going to be able to get to grips with these very different situations to be able to do it all by myself.

I suspect this is a different way of working from the way Sean Eddy and the ittakes30 articles intended.  Rather than gain the all-encompassing knowledge their ideal interdisciplinary researcher seems to need to have, I fear I am the type of person they describe as

someone who works on modelling the yeast cell cycle who still calls himself a physicist ….[has] commitment problems.

(Regular readers of my blog will note that I probably have problems with that underlined pronoun, which comes from a quote in the Eddy article). I am trying to use my physicist’s tools to explore biological problems but not shift field permanently.  Nevertheless I do totally agree with Eddy’s statement that

if your grant proposal includes statistical analysis, your reviewers shouldn’t be acting as enforcers requiring you to have a card-carrying statistician as a collaborator.

The dangers of grant reviewers and grant-giving panels having a very narrow disciplinary focus, is manifest and damaging. But I suspect that the school of thought being advocated, namely that having interdisciplinary individuals is the answer, is falling into an ontological trap. If Crick and Watson transformed themselves from physicists into something new as molecular biologists – an example cited – by now molecular biologists are most certainly not interdisciplinary in the original sense. Molecular biology has become a perfectly respectable discipline of its own in the intervening 50 years, including formal undergraduate courses, and now needs to collaborate elsewhere to create novel ‘interdisciplinary’ science. So any time a ‘motley crew of misfits‘, to use another quote, come together to start a new field – computational biology and systems biology would be recent examples – the process of where the new discipline starts and stops, and therefore what is interdisciplinary, has to be re-evaluated; the boundaries will shift once again.

So I will stick to the personal model that works for me, that of finding a small number of congenial collaborators, possibly by hearing them speak at meetings such as Physics of Living Matter, and working together to share our different languages and frameworks to identify and progress a meaningful problem we can all contribute to.  I do not intend to convert myself into the person who can tackle the problem from all directions simultaneously as an individual, and I am happy to retain my identity as a physicist.  There are other ways of doing it, but I don’t believe that interdisciplinary work can only be done by ‘committing’ to leave one’s background behind, or by creating new ‘disciplines’ as a fusion of old ones.


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