Athene Donald's Blog

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

Archive for the ‘Interdisciplinary Science’ Category

Physicists, Algae and Sustainability

Posted by Athene Donald on November 28, 2010

A couple of weeks ago my university was able to announce a large new initiative, £20M to set up The Winton Programme for the Physics of Sustainability, funded by David Harding, the founder, chairman and head of research of Winton Capital Management and an alumnus of my department.  The details of this enterprise, which will be led by Professor Sir Richard Friend, are still to be worked up, but I think it is reasonable to assume that a significant amount of the effort will be directed towards novel and improved methods for energy production, applying physics to meet the growing demand on our natural resources.

However it is easy for physicists to think in purely ‘synthetic’ terms when dealing with problems such as these. By this I mean a natural area to concentrate effort on would be organic photovoltaic devices of the kind to which Friend has already made such a significant contribution.  He has recently a third spinout to his name in conjunction with the Carbon Trust; Eight19,  a new solar energy company – spun out from Carbon Trust’s Cambridge University-TTP Advanced Photovoltaic Research Accelerator – which will be focusing on developing and manufacturing high-performance, low-cost plastic solar cells for high-growth volume markets.  In my own very small way I am involved with a different project aimed at exploring optimization of devices composed of blends of semiconducting polymers by getting a better grip on the underlying polymer physics of the morphology development during device processing. This project is a collaboration involving Sheffield University, Diamond and Cardiff University.  Sheffield University has its own substantial effort directed at sustainability, Project Sunshine, which has three themes: food, energy and global change. Their description of the energy section identifies two different strands to utilize solar energy: photovoltaic devices such as those studied in the EPSRC project I am involved with or relevant to Eight19, and microalgae as the basis of biofuel production.

The latter may look as if it is far removed from physics – the project, part of a large consortium and also funded by the Carbon Trust – requires optimizing both the strain of algae used and the efficiency of lipid production as well as developing refining methodologies to produce the requisite biofuel.  But as with biofuels produced on land (which have recently come in for much opprobrium because they take land away from food production and their net effect on carbon emissions is unclear), there is much more scope for biological physicists to make a contribution than is perhaps immediately obvious.

Why do I say this? Some years ago I was involved with an unsuccessful bid to BP for their Biofuels Institute, a bid won by the University of California, Berkeley after significant commitments from their Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. (The Institute may now be something of a poisoned chalice on many fronts; I have no information that tells me this is so but given the  image of BP in the US and the financial situation of the state of California, quite aside from the fall from grace of biofuels produced from crops nicely described a couple of years ago by Richard Jones here,  one must assume this is so.) As people got together to start preparing our university’s case the obvious suspects were lined up: plant scientists, engineers and chemical engineers, social scientists and those involved with policy. But physical sciences collectively were thought not to be relevant. I objected (and was immediately co-opted onto the working group) because, if using plant mass (biological) physicists have relevant tools to study structure and how that varies between candidate species or cultivars. This knowledge can then be used to provide understanding of how the structure affects processing, rather than tackling this in an empirical way in large vats as might be done in a chemical engineering department. In other words, I would say that by providing underpinning mechanistic understanding, physicists can help to rationalize an optimized strategy even for feedstock of  biological origin.

In fact, it is exactly this same strategy of rationalization which underpins the work I am involved with on organic photovoltaics: many approaches in the literature rely on annealing appropriate polymer blends to modify the microstructure and then examining subsequent device performance, without having a robust underpinning understanding of the thermal properties of the polymers involved. In other words they don’t have a firm grip on where the glass transition temperature and other relevant thermal transitions sit to identify an appropriate processing (annealing) window.  By gaining a better understanding of the properties of the constituents, we believe we can provide better a priori insight into what thermal annealing will be best to give the desired microstructure. I believe in a similar way, with plants or algae, by understanding the structure (and not just the chemistry) of the feedstock it may be possible to identify which sources will be most easily broken down or how growth conditions affect microstructure and therefore subsequent processing strategies.  My work on starch (outlined on my blog previously) shows that a physicist can contribute surprisingly much to inform both plant breeders and industrialists utilizing the material, and I would be surprised if physicists – of either a biological or polymeric bent –  were not similarly able to contribute to research aimed at optimizing algae utilization for biofuel production.  That of course will not resolve the bigger issues of whether this route is viable commercially – though if it helps in the optimization it may help to bring costs down – let alone whether it is actually effective in reducing CO2 emissions overall, but if algal biofuel production is to succeed as a realistic option the whole spectrum of potential research inputs must be utilized. Once again the breadth of interdisciplinary science needs to be borne in mind and I hope physicists will form part of the teams and consortia set up to explore these novel routes to biofuel production.


Posted in Biological Physics, Interdisciplinary Science, Research, Science Funding | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Educational Breadth

Posted by Athene Donald on November 14, 2010

I am now off to Paris for a 2 day meeting of the ESPCI International Advisory Committee. ESPCI Paris Tech (the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, one of a group of institutions which comprise an overarching but recently constructed entity known as Paris Tech) is one of the so-called Grandes Écoles in Paris, and as such is one of the elite and provides for the ‘elite’ student. The Parisian universities have very complex inter-relationships and funding mechanisms – which involve some direct oversight by the Mayor, though for ESPCI less so than in the past – which, even after 4 years on this committee, remain a mystery to me. I won’t be talking about that aspect here, but I do want to raise the issue of how broad the education is within ESPCI, and how it compares with many courses here.

The first thing to note is that students enter the Grandes Écoles after 2 years of intensive ‘cramming’ post Baccalaureate, courses which particularly cover rigorous mathematical training. They are a highly competitive bunch of students who attend, who see education at one of the Grandes Écoles, probably correctly, as a passport to a future high level job amongst the great and good. Their professional aspirations would include politics and the upper rungs of the civil service but, for ESPCI in particular, also a future in industrial management and research.  The link to industry is highly valued by both the students and the academic staff, and all students will do a substantial placement in some external laboratory, possibly abroad.

That the students can readily do such an international assignment reflects the first aspect of the ESPCI education that I want to stress. The students do a huge amount of mandatory language learning.  They are expected to become fluent in English, with 170 hours of classes during each of the first 3 years (of the 4 year course). For instance, in their second year much of the emphasis is on American movies and media, presumably because all the students are bombarded with these. Doing a third language is no longer mandatory, as I believe it used to be, but is clearly encouraged.  So these science and engineering students have already a significant additional teaching load beyond anything a UK university might expect.

During the first two years the main emphasis is on giving all students a strong base across the sciences, so that they all do the trio of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, with specialization only later. This is seen as the necessary groundwork although many of the students would see themselves as future engineers; there is also a strong emphasis on experimental work including workshop design and practice. It is hard to think of comparable courses within the UK.  I think the closest would be the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge, where 1st year students choose 3 out of 8 experimental subjects plus maths.

Looking at what is expected of the students at ESPCI, I do wonder if we aim high enough here. Firstly, we assume that it is not necessary for UK students to speak any language other than English. The numbers of UK students doing Erasmus years abroad from any discipline is small (in comparison with the numbers coming here from Europe), the number of scientists in particular is tiny.  Even if we assume that English  – well, OK, American – is the international language of science, there is more to life than the day job.

(As an aside, I have previously pointed out how my own linguistic shortcomings have caught up with me recently , my German O Level being inadequate to enable me to follow talks in German at a recent meeting. My French – despite the attempts of my French teacher and also stopping at O Level – is slightly better, to the extent that when I was involved with the appointment interviews for the ESPCI Director a few years back I could cope. Although I was ‘allowed’ to ask my questions of the candidates in English, I could follow the presentations and submitted material well enough.  This I should stress was all inadvertent: I had only agreed to be involved when invited by the then Director Pierre-Gilles de Gennes because he assured me the whole process would be in English – ‘d’accord’ as he said.)

In the UK, the early specialization at school is reinforced by most degrees.  That is why I find the Natural Sciences Tripos at Cambridge so attractive; I believe Nottingham University has recently created something somewhat similar, also called Natural Sciences. It means that just because you thought Physics, for instance, was what you wanted to do at school you are not stuck if you find University Physics not to your taste or what you expected.  It means that students who had never heard of Materials Science or Earth Sciences before, have the opportunity to sample them in the first year, and thereafter move completely into these fields if it takes their fancy. For students who want to be more broadly interdisciplinary that option is also there. And for those who come up uncertain whether to do physical or biological sciences, there are a wide range of possible combinations during the first year to help them make up their mind while keeping their options pretty open.

Of course, I didn’t appreciate biology when I did the course, as I’ve said before, and didn’t avail myself of the opportunities to study any of the biological options, including the very popular Biology of Cells course. This course would have been ideal for my current interests but held no attractions for my 18 year old self.  ESPCI only introduced biology into their compulsory first year course relatively recently (it is an institution, after all, designed to specialize in Physics and Chemistry, as the English translation of its name – Industrial Physics and Chemistry  Higher Educational Institution – makes clear), and is definitely a minor component, but there is a strong push to give breadth in their education, and recently research in biology has started to be built up at ESPCI too.  Breadth is also demonstrated by the introduction of  some elements of law and management into the curriculum, again as part of the compulsory elements.  There is a very clear ethos that this training is to enable the student to have a well-rounded professional attitude to their anticipated future life in an industrial setting.

There is, I fear, too little of this breadth and well-roundedness in many British science degrees. From what I can judge, engineering degrees – because of the need for professional accreditation – in the UK are more likely to contain some of the more managerial and legal aspects than pure science degrees. It is of course possible that a knock-on effect of the Browne review will be to encourage departments to introduce more of this. For instance, as David Docherty of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CHIE) has written,  after Browne the question is

“How do businesses and universities partner more inventively in the interests of the country and develop high-quality graduates who have learned how to innovate?”

This statement resonates with the impact agenda, which is finding currency at all political levels with regard to the research portfolio. So such a changing climate post-Browne may in itself drive some changes in the content of many courses, and it could be argued that the structure of the course at ESPCI would be a good model which can be seen to work. It doesn’t compromise the quality of the education for their exceptional students and the principles could be extended to a much broader range of courses for students of varying academic abilities. But leaving that factor aside, simply in terms of breadth for educating those with either an indecisive mind, or an early identified penchant to work at the boundaries between disciplines, ESPCI also offers very attractive opportunities.

Posted in Biological Physics, Education, Interdisciplinary Science, Teaching | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Too Much Interdisciplinarity? From Cliometricians to Mathematical Biologists

Posted by Athene Donald on October 25, 2010

I have recently been reading two apparently vastly different books: In Defence of History by Richard J Evans, a Cambridge colleague, and Making Sense of Life by Evelyn Fox Keller. Despite their widely different topics and approaches, reading them in juxtaposition brought out some striking similarities.

In Defence of History is a book written to defend the discipline of history against some of the more extreme manifestations of post-modernism. As the blurb on the back cover of my edition says ‘under the influence of postmodernist theory, the profession of history is in crisis, its assumptions derided and its methods rejected as outmoded.’ I am not going to comment on any of this, as I read it simply to get some handle on how postmodernism has impacted on the field and am clearly no expert. Likewise I am no expert in developmental biology, the main theme of Making Sense of Life:  the book concentrates on how approaches to embryo development have changed over time, along with what constitutes ‘knowing’. Fox Keller refers to this as a discussion of ‘variations in epistemological culture..[that] are both temporal and interdisciplinary.’ And it is this common strand of interdisciplinarity that both these books  touch upon, that I want to explore in this post: how, in fact, there are some overlapping ideas despite the very different provenances and motivations of the two books. I should add both are books I very much enjoyed reading.

Evans writes an interesting chapter on whether history can be treated as a science suggesting that ‘attempts to turn history into science have been going on for the best part of two centuries’ but on the whole coming down on the side that it can’t. For instance he states that history is not well placed to make predictions about the future because ‘life, unlike science, is simply too full of surprises’. I happen to think science is full of surprises too, but I think it is clear what he means. He also discusses the argument that history cannot be regarded as a science because ‘while scientific knowledge is cumulative, historical knowledge is not’ and that very often different historians will dispute each other’s interpretations and judgement may also come into play.  Well that also will apply to scientists but again, I think it is clear what he means.

However, the main thing that struck me was his comments about the fragmentation of history as a discipline, the spawning of sub-disciplines that then claimed to be more real than the original. In particular, this is discussed in the context of social history.  History – at least in the UK – used to be concerned solely with great men, the nation state and the ensuing politics. The vast majority of people were regarded as unimportant (‘peasants’ if you like) and didn’t feature.  This led to the need for the parvenus who wanted to study social and economic history to set up separate departments and to ‘claim that their own specialism constituted a separated discipline entirely distinct from history proper’, to quote Evans.  So-called cliometricians in the 1970’s wanted to transform the discipline of history by introducing a proper ‘scientific’ basis, particularly with regard to demographic and economic history, using quantitative methods such as those borrowed from econometrics.  Readers of this blog may see why I think this argument is not a million miles from what happens in interdisciplinary science, as I discussed previously, where new disciplines may be spawned as if to replace existing traditional ones.

So where does Fox Keller fit into this?  Her own background is in theoretical physics, but over her career she has turned into (to use her own words) a mathematical biophysicist . In her book, amongst an analysis of many topics, she discusses the emerging field of mathematical biology. She takes exception, for instance,  to how external funding agencies view bringing disciplines together at this maths-biology interface, quoting with displeasure from a press release associated with the formation of a new programme in theoretical biology at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1998:

The use of mathematical ideas, models, and techniques in the biosciences is a rapidly growing and increasingly important field. Applied mathematicians have traditionally used mathematical methods to address a wide range of problems in the physical sciences….However, several areas of biology have gradually developed an understanding of the important role that mathematical approaches can play. Such approaches are often in the hands of people who collaborate with experimentalists, but do not themselves work in the laboratory.

She sniffs at this because it smacks of belittlement of biologists who work in an apparently ‘undeveloped culture’, with theoretical physicists ‘seeking to impose the cultural givens’ of their twentieth century history on biologists.

Likewise she refers to an earlier report from 1992 for a workshop on ‘Mathematics and Biology: The Interface Challenges and Opportunities’  which had stated in patronizing voice:

This is the stage in which biology finds itself today, poised for the phase transition that comes with the total integration of mathematical and empirical approaches to a subject. Many branches of biology are virtually devoid of mathematical theory, and some must remain so for years to come. In these, anecdotal information accumulates, awaiting the integration and insights that come from mathematical abstraction.’

The solution this 1992 report made, smacks of the transformation of the discipline the cliometricians were wanting to make in the case of history: explicitly to develop new research strategies (and new funding routes) rather than simply a ‘physics of biology’.  I think Fox Keller approves of this, wanting mathematical biology to be sui generis rather than a spectrum of approaches which is flexible enough to accommodate many different facets.  Her book, written in 2002, really predates the explosion of systems biology, let alone synthetic biology – both of which obviously represent different overlaps between physical and biological sciences. (The earlier manifestation of synthetic biology, as constructed in the early 20th century, forms a separate chapter in the book, but is a completely different subject from that conveyed by the phrase nowadays.)

Herein lies my concern. The mathematical biology she was flagging up was discussed in 2000 by Peter Dearden and my Cambridge colleague Michael Akam; since then times have changed again, the approaches needed for solving cutting-edge problems have likewise changed  and it is  madness to keep trying to create new departments to keep up. It is bad enough trying to keep abreast of new journals. Meanwhile funding becomes distorted to try to follow these new hot topics.

So, be it cliometricans, social historians or mathematical biologists redefining a ‘traditional’ discipline or claiming that their particular way of doing things must overtake any previous methodology, this approach is, I think, ultimately unhelpful.  These two books, tackling utterly different fields and with totally different motivations, reinforce my suspicion that identifying new fashionable fields carved out of an amalgam of old ones is a dangerous ploy – much better to let natural synergies develop for particular purposes. This suspicion would appear to align with Evans’ position, if not Fox Keller’s. However, the reason why this idealistic approach may fail, the reason why individuals want a new hook to hang their hat on, comes down (of course) to funding and job opportunities. Sitting uncomfortably on the fence between disciplines, rather than inventing new ones, always has the danger that whichever way one falls off it is into a hostile environment which fails to appreciate the synergy one is hoping to achieve.

Posted in Biological Physics, Interdisciplinary Science, Science Culture, Science Funding | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Writing the Right Stuff

Posted by Athene Donald on October 12, 2010

Almost everything I have written over the last 30 odd years has been in the standard format of so-called ‘scholarly articles’ and grant applications.  There is a certain style to this, rather formal and usually retaining the passive voice – though that is a fashion that is fading – a general style that has been referred to as ‘didactic dead-pan’. (If I were properly ‘dead-panning  didactically’ here, I would give you the reference for that quote, but I  will refrain).   Occasionally, if I were feeling daring in a review article I might have used a rhetorical question; that was as exciting as it got. But in the last few weeks I have had to think much harder about genre, and not just for writing posts for this blog.  This was brought into focus as I composed a speech at the end of last week to give in the distinctly archaic format of a Cambridge University Discussion, held in the Senate House (and for which appropriate academic dress, in the form of a gown, is a requirement to add to the solemnity of the occasion).

I have only spoken in a Discussion once, when I was Chair of my Department’s Personnel Committee. At the time we were all very concerned by an initial set of proposals regarding assimilation of staff onto a payscale with a single spine, a payscale that appeared to advantage those at the top at the expense of those near the bottom (I should point out that the payscale was substantially modified before its introduction, in part because of the views expressed at the Discussion).  And that time, counter to the solemnity I have just referred to, the dignity was disturbed by a spontaneous burst of applause at the end of my speech, much to my surprise.  Nevertheless, as I composed my remarks this time, and thought about what I wanted to say, I realised that the how was also much in my mind: the style that seemed appropriate felt rather like a Victorian novel, Disraeli perhaps or George Eliot. Maybe it is the ghost of Discussions Past that has been hovering over my typing fingers.

The current subject of the Discussion is the introduction of a Combined Equality Scheme which has slowly traversed its way through the layers of university committees, all of which I appear to sit on – so I have seen this document multiple times in subtly different versions.  As one part of this Scheme, Champions have been introduced for the three equality strands of Gender (that’s me), Disability and Race.  As champions, we wanted to turn up to this Discussion to state our total commitment to mainstreaming Equality within the University, even if not a soul turned up to oppose the Report on the Scheme; in fact two people did, one of whom seemed to think equality was a luxury which could be done away with in times of financial stringency.  I reproduce my remarks at the end of this post, so you don’t need to wade through them if you don’t want to, but they are there to illustrate my point about genre. Read the speech, and then compare it with my style in the Fight Debate published in Eureka last week; if you can get behind the paywall you can read the whole thing, but a part of it is also included at the bottom of this post. Or indeed compare the Discussion style with this blog and you will see what fun I am able to have now in constructing different ‘voices’, an opportunity I don’t recall ever having had previously during my professional life.

But there is also a serious scientific as well as linguistic point here, relating to interdisciplinary working.  If you compare how physicists and biologist write, for instance, they approach things in different ways. That is true even in the very titles they choose for their papers. Looking at the table of contents in last week’s PNAS, a journal I have deliberately chosen since it encompasses essentially the whole breadth of pure science within each issue, the differences become very obvious.

The first two titles in the cell biology section of this recent issue are:

Polyunsaturated liposomes are antiviral against hepatitis B and C viruses and HIV by decreasing cholesterol levels in infected cells

Lateral opening of a translocon upon entry of protein suggests the mechanism of insertion into membranes

I’ve marked up in bold the active verb in each; such verbs are missing if you look at the first title from the Chemistry section:

Hydration dynamics at fluorinated protein surfaces

and verbs are equally missing from the Physics section:

Direct search for a ferromagnetic phase in a heavily overdoped nonsuperconducting copper oxide

With no verbs in the physical science titles there is no active sense of discovery, nothing to let you know (from the title alone) what the key conclusions of the paper are, just a description of the scope of the paper. I don’t know where these stylistic differences came from – I hardly think it is because physicists are less certain about what they are discovering – but it seems to be fairly general. There are titles in this issue that buck the trend, but I suspect if I applied a statistical test I would find the difference was significant. I say this with some confidence because I have for ages wondered why it was that biology titles felt somewhat alien, and I think now I’ve worked it out.

You could argue that the wording of the title is immaterial, but I think it is symptomatic of differences in style and approach throughout; somehow there are cultural norms ingrained in us as we are taught and trained in our particular discipline. There is nothing spelt out, and it isn’t clear why the differences have evolved. At school, children may explicitly be taught about genre writing, and how to write in different styles for a broadsheet or a tabloid, for instance.  Nothing is said about writing styles for science; indeed, far too little is said about science writing at all!  Nevertheless, if I want to start publishing my interdisciplinary work in a journal from a different branch of science maybe I need to tune into this with more care if I want to satisfy the referees, regardless of the quality of the science itself.  It looks like another challenge and potential pitfall for progressing interdisciplinarity.

My remarks at this week’s Discussion:

Deputy Vice Chancellor, I speak to you as the University’s Gender Equality Champion, one of the three new champion’s roles formalised in this Combined Equality Scheme.  The role initially was created in the mind’s eye of our previous Vice Chancellor, who wanted to focus thoughts on the importance of true equality.  As a university we have certainly not succeeded particularly well in the past; our history is glorious but also formally excluded women for more than 90% of its existence. Even recently segments of our multicultural and diverse society will have continued to feel excluded or under-valued. It is high time we dealt formally and properly with the consequences of failings consequent upon our long history.

The creation of this Combined Equality Scheme brings together many actions needed to bring the University into compliance with the Law. Currently we are not doing well on the compliance front, and this should be a source of shame. What we have in the Scheme is a clear statement of the approach of the university in dealing with the different equality strands. It gives a brief overview of the University’s functions and activities in order to fulfil its aspirations to be a good employer, which extend to actions beyond mere compliance.  By bringing together a previous grand total of 38 policies and papers into a single, easily digestible document we will not only have much greater clarity of vision and purpose and greater transparency, but in the process reduce the administrative burden on both the central bodies and individual members.

The law may upon occasion be an ass, but the new duties incumbent on us under the Equality Act 2010 require us to respond, as does natural justice for our students and employees. I have watched this Scheme during its gestation. I have followed it through a series of committees – the Equality and Diversity Committee, the Human Resources Committee and finally University  Council, all of which I sit on – so I have seen how each committee has helped to mould the final article, to ensure a balance of pragmatism and aspiration wrapped up in the necessities of the legislative framework. I believe it represents a significant step forward for the University and all its employees. I warmly commend this Combined Equality Scheme to you.

Compare that with my response to the question Are TV science presenters more important than leading practising scientists? in the Fight Debate from last week’s Eureka magazine. I was putting the ‘No’ view, to counter Evan Harris’ ‘Yes’ piece. I can only include part of the article here; for the full thing it’s back behind the paywall I’m afraid.

What would TV presenters of science be able to present if it wasn’t for the work of scientists?  They can be as charismatic as you like, brilliant at enthralling the public and communicating the wonders of science. But if the scientists weren’t beavering away day by day, however uncharismatic they may be (or perceived to be) there would be no wonder of science for the presenters to communicate.

And who makes more lasting difference to the world we live in? Let’s look at some figures from the past to see whose legacy is longer and more important.  Back in 1964, because of my interest in ornithology I was given tickets to the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures given that year by Desmond Morris. Some may remember him as the author of the once controversial book ‘The Naked Ape’. In 1964 he was better known as a presenter of Zoo Time on ITV. Contrast his current status, and the contribution he has made to science in the long term, with Dorothy Hodgkin who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in that year for her beautiful and ground-breaking X-ray studies, notably of the vitamin B12. Her seminal work continues to be an inspiration to many; her appearance on a Royal Mail stamp this year is testament to her impact.

Fast forward a few years, and the media darling was Magnus Pyke, an eccentric scientist who succeeded – with a great deal of arm-waving in a literal sense – in putting complex ideas across to a lay audience. Consequently in 1975, he was the highest rated living scientist in a New Scientist poll for the ‘best-known and most characteristic scientist of all time’………

Posted in Biological Physics, Communicating Science, Equality, Interdisciplinary Science | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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.

Posted in Biological Physics, Interdisciplinary Science, Research | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »