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Building a New Niche Network

Emerging fields of science offer opportunities for researchers that established fields can't match, but they also present special challenges. Scientists who work in such fields don't have decades of scientific literature, conferences, and professional lineages to draw from and build on, for example. Usually, their field doesn't have a place in the core curriculum. They don't have several generations of role models or a large number of obvious mentors to guide their professional choices. Sometimes those researchers don't fit well into discipline-based academic departments, which can lead to feelings of isolation and aimlessness.

"It's nice to be able to meet people who are our age doing experiments that relate directly to our work, experimentalists who we could end up working with in the future. It's nice to be able to meet these people now while we're all students." -- Christopher Pierse

In an effort to address such challenges, researchers working in the field known as the physics of living systems (or biophysics), which has emerged only in the last few years as a discipline with a distinct identity, decided to help themselves by creating their own professional network. Such a network, they reasoned, should improve their career prospects while helping the field push quickly past its growing pains.

A new field

The National Science Foundation (NSF) first recognized the physics of living systems with its own program code in 2006. Since then, scientists and graduate students at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Center for Theoretical Biological Physics have been discussing ways to help accelerate the field's growth and seed opportunities for young scientists interested in joining and advancing the field. The biggest problem they face, says Herbert Levine, a professor of physics and co-director of the center, is that the handful of scientists working in this area are spread all over the world, each approaching common scientific questions from an isolated corner of a physics department.

"In physics departments and other physical science departments, very often there are only a few students working in this area," Levine says. "In a typical 25-person graduate class of physics students at a major research institution, perhaps two or three might be focusing on the physics of living systems."

Herbert Levine (Courtesy of Herbert Levine)

Being in such a small field presents a number of challenges to young scientists. First, there's the disciplinary-interdisciplinary tension: Students studying the physics of living systems are expected to receive the standard physics education (which most would agree is challenging) while also learning about relevant areas of biology and chemistry.

"But of course, there's only a finite number of hours in the day and years in a lifetime, so we've got to be thinking through what really are the essential things for these students to know," Levine says. "You have to come up with a way to quickly bring people up to speed in specific areas of biology or chemistry, depending on what exactly they're working on. The field is sufficiently young that there's no 30-year history of knowing how to do this in the best way."

There are sociological problems, too. Students studying the physics of living systems sometimes feel isolated from peers pursuing research in more traditional physics fields. Departments at universities have their own cultures, Levine says, and students who are trying to exist in two different cultures usually wind up feeling like they don't fit in with either.

The network comes online

Last year under the direction of Levine, graduate students at UCSD reached out to pockets of students studying the physics of living systems at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Princeton University; and Yale University. Together, these universities founded the Physics of Living Systems Student Research Network (PoLS-SRN) to help young scientists in the field meet each other, share training strategies, and locate potential research collaborations that could help set the agenda for the field in coming years.

Any graduate student studying the physics of living systems can request to join the network, says Christopher Smith, director of program logistics and technical organization for PoLS-SRN. But if several students from a university wish to become members, PoLS-SRN will seek a formal commitment from their professors to mentor and host other student members. In coming years, Smith says, it's possible that PoLS-SRN will add networking opportunities for postdocs and new faculty, but for now its primary focus is on graduate students.

Because the network is still in its early stages, many of its intended features are still being developed, Levine says. Eventually there will be message boards and other types of social applications to help graduate students and established scientists with similar research interests find each other and coordinate virtual and in-person meet-ups.

The group held its first official meeting in June at UCSD. More than 70 graduate students and 15 professors and postdocs attended, including Anand Murugan, a graduate student at Princeton who is looking at the physical properties governing how proteins interact to turn genes on and off. Murugan says it was eye-opening to meet so many researchers who shared his interests. "I've been to conferences where everyone is a biologist and I'm the only physicist, and I always feel out of place," he says. "But at the conference at UCSD, everyone there had similar backgrounds and interests. I didn't know they existed or what they were working on until I got to meet them there."

Christopher Pierse, a graduate student at UCSD studying the physics underpinning how enzymes bind to biological substrates and activate processes in the body, also attended the meeting. "The students here [at UCSD] are mostly into theory," Pierse says. "We have a few experimentalists, but we're mostly theorists, so it's nice to be able to meet people who are our age doing experiments that relate directly to our work, experimentalists who we could end up working with in the future," he says. "It's nice to be able to meet these people now while we're all students."

Christopher Pierse (Courtesy of Christopher Pierse)

In addition to making friends and meeting colleagues, meeting with like-minded peers can stir scientists' creativity and spur ideas that might not have arisen otherwise, Pierse says. "By meeting with the experimentalists now -- these people who we'll be growing up with, so to speak, in the scientific community -- you can inspire them to do certain experimental projects, they can inspire you to think differently about theories, and as a result you'll both be able to get further in your professional careers."

Help from on high

Even as these students were forming their new network, NSF was developing an initiative to fund projects that connect far-flung research departments focusing on the same problems, with a special emphasis on international collaboration. Shortly after the June meeting, NSF officials approached Levine and other PoLS-SRN program directors and asked if they'd be interested in becoming a pilot program for their newly created Science Across Virtual Institutes (SAVI) project.

Levine and the other directors jumped at the chance to obtain funding and broaden the network's reach to international collaborators. Last month, NSF officially announced that PoLS-SRN and two other research programs would be the first crop of SAVIs. Each of these programs will receive $150,000 per year for 5 years to support meetings where U.S. and international scientists meet and discuss their work and to set up Web sites where scientists can interact and seek collaborators.

NSF's other SAVI programs:

Wireless Innovation Between Finland and U.S. (Wi.Fi.US): American and Finnish engineers and computer networking scientists are pooling their resources to accelerate the progress of wireless networking technology.

Virtual Institute for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (VI-MSS): Several existing math and statistics institutes within the United States and India are teaming up to create collaborations, share data, and support basic research in the statistical sciences.

Machi F. Dilworth, director of NSF's Office of International Science and Engineering and program coordinator for SAVI, says the decision to enlist PoLS-SRN was easy. "With the physics of living systems, we didn't have to do anything because it was already functioning as a virtual institute," she says. "But they were eager to be considered a SAVI. Having an identity as an [NSF entity] makes it easier for potential international participants to go to their funding agencies and say, 'We'd like to participate.' " Since becoming a SAVI, the network has expanded to include 10 universities in the United States, 16 in Europe, two in Brazil, one in Singapore, and one in India.

Machi F. Dilworth (CREDIT: Sandy Schaeffer)

Dilworth says that virtual networks like SAVI are ideal for helping emerging fields like the physics of living systems grow into established disciplines. "If you're just working individually, it might take much longer [for a field to mature]," she says. "But if people share their ideas, their goals, their data, and come together, I think that will really expand the intellectual horizons and accelerate the progress of that field."

In addition to enhancing the quality and quantity of research in an emerging field, Levine says, participating in a network like the PoLS-SRN can afford young scientists opportunities for professional growth and career options that might not have existed otherwise. "Because it's sort of a small, niche field in the physical sciences, what [a research network] can do is broaden people's exposure to all the different possible aspects of the field," he says. "People in any given institution can only see a small piece of the elephant. They'll see the molecular piece if they're at Illinois, say, or the neural piece if they're at Princeton. And the field is much broader than that, so the opportunity to get a broader feel for what are the possible directions will certainly help students identify potential jobs," he says.

More directly, interacting with a large pool of professional peers helps young scientists make contacts that can pay off with postdoctoral placements or recommendations, Levine adds. "If I want to look for postdoctoral researchers for my lab, the easiest way to find them would be to have graduate students from other places contact me through this program, meet me, talk to me, maybe come visit for a couple of weeks. I'm much more likely to offer them a postdoctoral position than I would if I'd never met them and knew nothing about them."

Collaborating with universities in other countries can also open doors for U.S. students to find jobs in international labs, Levine says. "There are just as many good labs and good people working in Europe and Israel and increasingly in places like Asia as there are in the U.S."

Michael Price is a staff writer for Science Careers.

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