Moving Between Disciplines: Snakes or Ladders?

There might be many routes across the game board of your research career, but how do you make sure you land on a ladder that will get you somewhere rather than a snake? According to the U.K.'s research councils, which held a regional workshop recently to help Ph.D. students and postdocs from physical science backgrounds explore the opportunities offered by life sciences, one way of increasing your chances could be to get into an interdisciplinary field.

Many biologists are aware of what the world of physics has to offer to them. Life scientists would be unable to detect and measure what is going on in biological systems in the first place if it wasn't for concepts and devices based on physics. And the scientists who discovered the structure of the DNA molecule 49 years ago and made the Human Genome Project possible were physical chemists. It's perhaps less straightforward to see how physical scientists can benefit from working with living systems.

The most obvious way for physical scientists to get involved in life sciences is by addressing a biological problem using physical concepts. This is what Stefan Egelhaaf of both the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh did during his Ph.D. He used light scattering and electron microscopy techniques "to study the physical chemistry of structures formed by surfactants, structures which are also important in biology, as they constitute cell membranes," he explains. "The biological relevance of the topic is the reason why I performed my Ph.D. at the Institute of Cell Biology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and thus actually received a Ph.D. in biology." Egelhaaf next went to the European neutron-scattering facility, the Institute Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, France. "I continue to use scattering methods as tools to investigate biological systems and in particular interactions between different molecules, such as proteins or DNA," he says.

However, the road between physical and biological sciences is a two-way street. "A biological system can be used as a natural system to study a problem in physics," explains Egelhaaf, "and if you understand the physics, you can then apply it [back to biology] and both sides can profit."

The natural world provides a profusion of models to inspire physicists and chemists. One of the problems nature might help resolve is how to get around the limitation placed on the number of transistors per silicon chip by quantum effects. "The natural world has nanostructures that are fantastic," says John Ryan of Oxford University's Department of Physics. "The models are there for you." Scientific curiosity is not the only incentive here. "The research budget for chips is increasing exponentially," says Ryan, "but there will come a time when companies will try to find a less risky way of making money."

Working with a foot in both camps might always have had a certain appeal. "If you wish to discover new things, you have to look at things that nobody has looked at before," points out Ryan. The difference is that now opportunities are booming. "For many years, there was a well-defined demarcation line between the two [worlds]," Ryan explains. This meant that people working at the interface could find hard cash difficult to come by. But "funding agencies' views have changed in the last few years," says Ryan. The United Kingdom, along with all other major countries, has now realised the importance of interdisciplinary research and is investing significant sums of money in it.

This change in attitude was reflected by the presence of five of the U.K. research councils at the workshop: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council ( EPSRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council ( BBSRC), the Medical Research Council ( MRC), the Natural Environment Research Council ( NERC), and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council ( PPARC). "The research councils are committed to getting this interface funded," says Lesley Thompson of EPSRC. To this end they are trying to make boundaries between disciplines less rigid and to work more as partners. It doesn't matter which research council you submit your proposal to, "we take ideas from anybody and work out the most appropriate council to do the review," explains Thompson.

The research councils are keen to dispel the myth that scientists have to submit projects focussed squarely on what they think the research councils want them to do. They "are all trying to be increasingly flexible and more open to suggestions," says Thompson, "so if you need a scheme that isn't there, tell us." This message was echoed by the representatives of the other councils. "There is lots of funding going into interdisciplinary research, so let us know what you want, and probably you will get it," concludes Sadhana Sharma of BBSRC. According to Shabih Syed of MRC, "if there are two equivalent applications and only one can be funded, the strategically important one will be the funded one." And areas such as bioinformatics and chemical biology are among the ones described as "strategically important" for MRC.

Not surprisingly, there is now a "desperate" need for "bright young people with expertise in their discipline but who are also able to talk to people in other disciplines," says Thompson--and by the sound of it who also have the courage to take on innovative projects. Thompson stresses that young scientists should "set their own path, follow their conviction, and not listen to what people more senior may say." They should also remember to think about their career and keep an eye out for "ladders that will help [them] out. As you go through your career path, you have times when you get on a ladder, but sometimes you have snakes," she explains.

Many of these ladders are offered by the research councils. Ph.D. students are encouraged to go on graduate school to learn management skills and attend workshops or summer schools to get up to speed with new techniques or terminology. Fellowships are available to encourage postdoctoral mobility between disciplines. The research councils insist that young scientists should contact them directly to find out about the funding and schemes that are there to help them. "Call us to talk through the opportunities," says Thompson. But she also warns young scientists to look out for snakes. "One postdoc is a great ladder, two is pretty good," she explains, "but by the time you have four, you have to ask whether you are on a snake or a ladder."

The challenges faced by any scientist who wants to break into an interdisciplinary field are great: the language barrier, the lack of expertise in the partner discipline, and the conflicts of interest are only some of the major ones. But exciting opportunities and funding schemes are definitely there, and today's young researchers might not be the only ones to profit from them. These booming opportunities are also hoped to encourage more students to choose physics at university and reverse the current shortage of engineers and physical scientists.

Further regional workshops are being planned, and anybody who is interested should visit the Web site of any of the five research councils involved.

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