Interdisciplinarity

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At school, science usually comes neatly packaged into individual subjects. Maths, chemistry, biology, physics – all taught by different teachers and without much thought for how they fit together. You might be forgiven for thinking they don’t have much to do with each other.

However, at the cutting edge of scientific research, the boundaries between these subjects are becoming increasingly blurred. This approach, called interdisciplinarity, brings together scientists from different backgrounds to work on a project or solve a problem. This is not an entirely new concept, but it is one that has gained popularity in recent years, mostly due to the increasing complexity of modern biology.

Around 2000, an obscure field called systems biology started to gain recognition. It suggested that studying individual components of, say, a cell could only get us so far, since things were increasingly found to be connected together in complex networks or systems. An example is gene regulation networks: most genes do not act in isolation, but instead in systems of hundreds which can switch each other on and off, and regulate each other’s activity. Understanding what happens when you modify a gene, then, is not straightforward. The only practical way is to model the network mathematically, using a system of differential equations.

There were many more biological questions that could not be answered with traditional methods. The protein folding problem – how and why an amino acid chain folds into the complex three dimensional protein structure – is still not solved, but great progress has been made using computer algorithms, and immense processing power, to simulate the folding process. These algorithms are ‘fed’ with atomic-level data from physical chemistry and even quantum physics, in order to simulate the complex and random motions of atoms.

Then there is the question of data: the Human Genome Project churned out vast quantities of results, and an estimated 10 terabytes a day are generated by gene sequencing projects at one institute alone. Clearly processing this amount of data requires expertise in database management, data mining and information science.

To address the demand for interdisciplinary scientists, several universities have set up doctoral training centres (DTCs), funded by the UK research councils, with the specific mission of training postgraduate students to work at the interface between disciplines.

These include Warwick University’s Systems Biology DTC; the CoMPLEX programme at UCL, which trains mathematicians and engineers to work on complex interdisciplinary problems; and Imperial College’s own Institute of Chemical Biology (ICB). The focus of the ICB is using techniques from chemistry to study molecular interactions in cells. This has wide-ranging applications from biomedical (drug discovery for cancer and other diseases, developing medical imaging techniques) to agricultural (improving the efficiency of photosynthesis, strategies to overcome pesticide resistance). Students on the Masters and doctoral programs work together with supervisors from both biology and physical sciences departments, gaining unique experience and real expertise in both disciplines.

Interdisciplinary subjects are appearing at undergraduate level as well, with many universities offering degrees in subjects such as biophysics, bioengineering and bioinformatics.

But this isn’t really such a novel approach. In fact, interdisciplinarity was the original way of doing science. The ancient study of natural philosophy encompassed what we would now call physics, astronomy, mathematics and life sciences. Science was simply knowledge, a quest to understand and explain the world around us. We still see the vestiges of this in the ancient universities such as Cambridge, UCL and Durham, with their broad Natural Sciences degrees. Trends and fashions change in academia, as in every other walk of life, and sometimes things come full-circle.

You may have noticed a pattern in the examples mentioned so far: more people go from the physical sciences and mathematics/engineering/computing into biology, rather than the other way round.

Partly this comes from the way these collaborations first developed. It was the biologists who had the problems that needed solving, and it would have been easier to hire people who already had the skills and tools required, rather than having to gain that expertise themselves. The mathematicians and chemists might have had to pick up some biology in order to help, but they weren’t required to become experts.

Some might suggest it’s because some subjects are harder than others. That it’s easier for a ‘harder’ scientist to learn a ‘softer’ subject than the other way round. And this attitude is found on both sides of the divide; it isn’t just physicists and mathematicians disparaging their biology colleagues.

As an interdisciplinary scientist, this is a familiar scenario: you stand up to present your research at a conference of biologists, and see the look of panic on people’s faces when they realise you’re going to talk about maths. That there are going to be equations.

“So…you’re the mathematician?” one asked me tentatively at a recent symposium, looking at my poster as though the equations might jump out and bite him. It’s scary stuff, apparently.

In fact, one well-respected Durham professor confidently informed me that it would be ‘impossible’ for a biologist to learn the math skills I use in my research. I didn’t like to tell him that actually, my first degree was in — guess what — biology. Of course it’s not impossible. Very few things are.

So yes, make sensible and strategic decisions about what you study, with an eye on the potential career paths you might take. But never feel that your subject choices now have closed off opportunities in the future to work on the scientific problems that interest you. Increasingly, there is more than one way to get there.

And above all, it’s old advice and a bit of a platitude, but true all the same: study something that interests you, something that inspires and motivates you. That way, you’re likely to do your best work, and make a success of it — whatever the subject.

 

IMAGE: Yakissoba, flickr

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