APS News

Topical Conference Explores How Physics Can Help Biology

Epigenetics

Above: Shirley Tilghman of Princeton University introduces her talk on Epigenetics. Below: At "Lunch with the experts", David Agard of the University of California, San Francisco (arrow), shares his insights with graduate student attendees.

David Agard

We are poised at a unique moment in time when physics can make important contributions to biology, according to speakers at the topical conference on "Opportunities in Biology for Physicists," held in Boston, MA, September 28 and 29. Aimed primarily at graduate students and postdocs in physics who are considering applying the methods of physics to biological topics, the conference was a first for the APS, which typically organizes between 20 and 25 general and specialized meetings per year so that scientists can share the results of their own current research with colleagres.

However, in June 2001, the APS Executive Board decided it would be advantageous to organize something different: a topical conference on an emerging field that would prepare early career physicists for future opportunities. "Rapid strides are occurring in biology where enormous technical and conceptual progress has been made in the last ten years," said Program Committee Chair Robert Austin (Princeton University) on the choice to focus on the biology/physics interface. "We believe that physics will make a substantial contribution to the revolution occurring in biology, particularly if biologists and physicists work together at this critical time."

The invited talks gave general overviews of key issues in five basic topics: genomics and evolution, biological networks, biomolecular dynamics, high resolution imaging of living cells, and physical devices for biological investigations. In her welcoming remarks, APS Executive Officer Judy Franz expressed the hope that the proceedings would encourage more cross-communication between the two disciplines. "We didn't just want to preach to the choir," agreed Austin. "We can no longer afford the elitism that has so often typified physics in the past." Participants included 90 graduate students, 60 postdocs, and 70 more senior physicists.

Nearly every speaker on the program emphasized the critical need for collaboration between physicists and biologists, while recognizing the inherent difficulties, due to the different cultures and language employed by the two disciplines. Harvard University's Andrew Murray is among those who believe that biology is currently changing from a descriptive to a quantitative and conceptually profound field, implying deep principles that govern the field, and hence there is a critical need for physicists to help define them. "

Currently, biologists can make qualitative predictions, but they would like to be able to make quantitatively accurate predictions, he said."

Murray outlined three key roles physicists can play in the emerging revolution in biology, which were echoed repeatedly by other speakers. First, physicists can offer a fresh perspective and their aggressive reductionism can aid in the drive to develop a philosophy of underlying essential principles. They can also help improve accurate data collection so that predictions can be tested. "It's so difficult for biologists to generate theory that's experimentally testable," said Murray. And finally, physicists can continue developing useful techniques, not just through instrumentation, but through applied mathematical techniques to help convert biology's verbal logical models into formulas that explain the real world.

There were also two panel discussions. The first focused on how to make the transition to a career at the physics/biology interface. Five young physicists who have done so talked about how and why they chose to work in biological topics, and were able to offer useful advice to those in attendance who might be interested in doing the same thing. Ultimately, they agreed, it is vital to "know thyself" and follow the research that interests and excites you, rather than research that is deemed "important."

The second discussion focused on funding opportunities for those interested in working in this area, and featured short presentations by representatives from several key funding agencies and foundations. The representatives were able to offer useful pointers on the grant application process.

The two-day conference concluded with a brief presentation by the "grandfather of biological physics," Hans Frauenfelder (Los Alamos National Laboratory), who reiterated many of the themes sounded by other speakers. "Collaboration is crucial, not just between physics and biology, but also with chemistry, computer science and mathematics," he said. "But these different fields have vastly different approaches, and we must learn their language to avoid misconceptions."


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