Crossing Over: Physicists Entering Life Sciences

The rapid development of new life science technologies is creating a new niche for physicists willing to learn the language of biology. Both academic and industrial biological research centers value physicists for their computer literacy and numerical modeling skills. Hoping to meet the growing need for broadly trained physical scientists, the European Graduate School for Neurosensory Science was opened last month. The joint project of the University Oldenburg in Germany and University Groningen in the Netherlands is funded by the DFG and NWO with $1million for the next 3 years.

The international biotech industry is already huge, and it is expected to keep growing throughout the next decade. Recent studies say that in 5 years, half of all pharmaceuticals will be genetically engineered. Advances in the physical sciences have contributed to this startling growth. "The current rapid development in the life sciences is strongly related to the revolution in the fields of IT, materials science, and engineering," Holger Becker, a board member of Germany's Physical Society (DPG), tells Next Wave.

To continue to grow, the life sciences need the support of physical scientists. "Today, successful teams are interdisciplinary teams," says Becker. Thus, physicists will be in demand in fields ranging from bioinformatics to psychophysics. "Especially their computer literacy and the ability to model complex biochemical systems define physicists' value for the newly developing fields," Becker says.

Although physicists possess many of the fundamental skills required to enter the life sciences, it is also crucial to understand what the biological questions are, says Peter Hammerstein, a research group leader at Berlin's Innovationskolleg Theoretical Biology (ITB). Biological systems are usually much more complex than most of physicists' beloved model systems and require a sound understanding of biological details. Hammerstein, who studied mathematics and then turned to biology for his Ph.D., advises potential border-crossers to "learn the basics of biology as early as you can and get used to the biologists' language." Taking a second degree (Nebenfach) in biology or chemistry is particularly good preparation, he says.

The extra training is worth the effort. "Since you know your math and you've also worked on something real," says Hammerstein, "you have a considerable advantage compared to most co-applicants." Becker, who wrote his Ph.D. at Germany's Cancer Research Institute (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, agrees. "Life sciences are a fascinating field for physicists, with lots of opportunities in and outside academia," says Becker, who is also the CEO of Jenoptik Mikrotechnik. "These are inspiring working conditions for young physicists, perhaps only comparable to the computer branch in the 1970s."


Innovationskolleg Theoretische Biologie (ITB)

The Medical Physics Group at University Oldenburg

European Graduate School for Neurosensory Science

List of Life Science Max Planck Institutes

Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT) in St. Ingbert

Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC)

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