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Interdisciplinarity Rules OK!

Raising the Alarm

Been to a good conference lately? If so, it was probably pretty tightly focused on your field of research. Maybe it is time for a change, time to broaden your horizons a bit. Sometimes hearing what's going on in the rest of the scientific universe can be good for the soul ... and help you focus on where your career might be heading by throwing up some new ideas. The annual Festival of Science held by the British Association for the Advancement of Science could be just the place to start.

The BAAS meets in a different city every year for a week of talks, debates, and schools' events across the whole gamut of science and technology. This year, to mark the millennium, they did things a little differently. The Festival of Science, held at Imperial College from 6 to 12 September, formed part of a more ambitious celebration of science and the arts, creating SPARKS , which continues in South Kensington, London, until the end of the month.

While the aim of creating SPARKS may be to break down the barriers between 'the two cultures', the overriding theme of the Festival of Science was communication. In short, scientists need to talk to each other more. In the opening session, Sir George Radda, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, claimed that "a new breed of scientists" is required to take us into the future, "scientists who interact with each other in a new way."

In the brief pieces below, Next Wave describes some of the unique collaborations showcased at the festival. Read on and you will see that when physicists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers, and biologists find a common language, the scientific sparks really begin to fly. ...

Physics Has the Key

Have you ever been worried that somebody might intercept your e-mail or your credit card number while you were shopping on the Internet? The information sent by a computer is coded and decoded using keys that have to remain secret for the information to stay confidential. But it is getting harder to keep the secret safe as computers become increasingly powerful. To design keys that are harder to break, the IT industry has turned to quantum physics. Simon Phoenix discussed how BT Laboratories exploits the quantum properties of light, using fibre optics to send secure messages and detect whether an eavesdropper has intercepted the message. Artur Ekert from the Centre for Quantum Computation at the University of Oxford describes his field as "one of the most flourishing areas of physics." He is quick to add that while it is rapidly expanding, it "doesn't mean there's no place for you!"


Bugs Make Light Work

Miners may no longer rely on canaries to detect harmful gases, but in a session on cleaning up the environment Anne Glover described how scientists have created the "bacterial version of a canary ... which glows instead of sings" to detect soil pollutants. Glover introduced the gene for luciferase into bacteria, causing them to glow--as long as they are happy. But the engineered bacteria think contaminated soil is sad, and their happy glow fades. Glover maps the levels of toxicity by taking soil samples from across a site and testing them with the glowing bacteria. She can then alert environmental scientists when she finds a dangerous area. Next, by supplying the right nutrients, the bugs can be encouraged to eat the contamination, which is vastly cheaper and less disruptive than traditional cleanup methods. The future potential of this combined approach of biotechnology and environmental science is so encouraging that the University of Aberdeen has created a company, Remedios Limited, to diagnose and clean up contaminated land.


Modelling New Materials

"Discovering new materials by going back to the atom" is the way forward for materials research, according to Nicholas Harrison from the Computational Materials Science Group at Daresbury Laboratory. But instead of heading for a chemistry lab for inspiration, he turns to supercomputers. Computers are now powerful enough to solve the complicated quantum mechanical calculations that predict the properties of materials. As Harrison explains, "A method like this for discovering new materials is incredibly important. ... It's the big new way of doing things." A new form of titanium oxide, a material used in both paint and polo mints, has been discovered using this method. Computer modelling correctly predicted that if titanium oxide was tightly squeezed, the product would be a much harder material--a very desirable attribute in the materials industry.


Rocks in Orbit

Sometimes it takes a geologist to do good astronomy. Sara Russell from the Natural History Museum collects meteorites from Antarctica. "There are some objects in our solar system that haven't changed in 4.5 billion years, and these are the ones we target." Russell uses her skills as a geologist alongside a more traditional approach, the observation of the stars, to ask questions about how the solar system was born.


Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of ... Plant Extract?

Make sure you don't become an unwitting biopirate, says Kerry Ten Kate of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. Ten Kate is a lawyer who spends her time making sure Kew scientists don't fall foul of regulations arising from the Convention on Biological Diversity, which aims to protect the rights of local people by giving them a stake in products developed from their biological resources. She warns that academic scientists working in the area of biodiversity are "going to need to understand the policy and legal issues" involved, particularly if they're involved in collaborations with industry. One consequence is that bioprospecting representatives of universities and botanic gardens not only have to be experts in the science, but also "have to negotiate deals" with the countries they collect in.


Genomic Technology Tests GM Foods

Though arguing that genetically modified (GM) foods have long-term benefits, scientists are acknowledging that public concerns have to be faced. They suggest that the procedures used to measure food safety should be as tough and open as possible. Currently GM foods are tested biochemically, looking for changes that cause the food to interfere with nutrition or make it toxic. These tests work well for single, intended genetic changes but not so well for changes which are a by-product of the modification process. Although emphasising that a "difference doesn't mean unsafe," Mike Gasson from the Institute of Food Research has used techniques developed for genomic research. By comparing the entire protein content of the GM food with the natural food, he can spot any unintended changes more quickly and easily.


The Paperless Practice

Computers have become a familiar sight on your GP's desk, but have you considered the potential they offer the health service? In a session on 'Healthy Computing,' a group of medics and IT specialists met to discuss recent developments. Simon de Lusignon, a GP and senior lecturer in Health Information, explained that better computers, networking, and access to data would allow GPs to use their IT skills to produce a healthier population. For example, by receiving blood pressure readings from a patient on an ISDN line, GPs can study the symptoms without the complication or the stress of a journey. And while GPs are turning their hands to computing, there are numerous opportunities for computer scientists who are interested in a career in the health sector. For example, Master's courses specialising in Health and Medical Informatics are available across the country.


Bionic People

"Most of the human body, with the exception of the brain, has the potential for replacement or supplementation," according to biomedical engineer David Delpy of University College London. He points out that, already, millions of people are walking around with mechanical devices inside them. But there are problems, caused by the inherent 'foreign-ness' of the materials such implants are made from, and their inability to fully mimic the sheer complexity and subtlety of biological systems. Now we're "seeing the possibility of reconstructing the body by manipulating the body itself," according to David Williams of the University of Liverpool. But tissue engineering--persuading the body to repair itself--will not happen overnight. Julia Polak described the success of Imperial College's interdisciplinary Centre for Tissue Regeneration and Repair in growing bone in a test tube, but said that there was a long way to go before more complex organs such as lung could be regenerated. Delpy reckons we're stuck with the more primitive biomechanical devices for at least the next 20 to 50 years, so research in the area definitely needs to continue. Ask any paraplegic whether they're prepared to wait, he challenges, "They want it now." And whether it's engineering of the tissue or biomechanical kind, "successful groups are truly multidisciplinary," says Delpy.