The APS, together with its Division of Biological Physics, is organizing a topical conference entitled "Opportunities in Biology for Physicists," to be held September 27-29 2002 in Boston, Massachusetts. The conference is aimed primarily at graduate students and postdocs who are considering moving their areas of research concentration to biological topics, not at those who already work in the field of biological physics or biophysics.
Attendance will be limited to about 250 participants. Unlike the Society's more traditional meetings, this conference is not intended to be a place where scientists present their own new research. Rather, leading physicists and biologists will be asked to give broad overviews of their selected areas of expertise at the interface between physics and biology. There will also be lectures offering practical advice on how to move from physics into the physics-biology interface, and an afternoon reception for those who fund biological physics research and those who hire biological physicists to meet with the participants and to display posters or set up booths.
Five topics have been selected for emphasis: genomics and evolution, biological networks, biomolecular dynamics, high-resolution imaging of living cells, and physical devices for biological investigation. Each of these topics is an area that offers significant opportunities for the techniques and problem-solving skills of physicists.
"We hope that this workshop will help introduce young physicists to the great opportunities that exist in modern biology, and catalyze the enrichment that modern biology can bring to physics," said Robert Austin (Princeton University), who is chairing the program committee for the conference.
In genomics and evolution there are two main avenues that offer opportunities for the techniques and problem solving skills of physicists: unraveling the evolutionary history of life by comparative genomic studies of sequenced organisms, and utilizing bioinformatics to unravel the much more complex process of the selective expression of the genome. Biological networks incorporate features that are familiar to the physicist, including feedback, amplification, error correction and coincidence detection.
In biomolecular dynamics most significant challenges will come from trying to understand how the dynamical interactions between molecules can allow for the creation of much of the complex machinery of the cell, ranging from genetic regulatory networks to signal transduction cascades to active control of cell shape and rigidity.
High resolution imaging of single cells will enable scientist to determine the exact three-dimensional arrangement of the cellular components and is tremendously important, as are the time-dependent changes in this arrangement during the cell cycle and upon interaction with a variety of cell activators (hormones, growth factors, etc.).
Finally, there is the "classical" area of physical probes in biology. In X-ray diffraction to magnetic resonance imaging, physicists played key roles in developing so many powerful tools. "We don't believe that the biology of the future will be able to grow and flourish without further parallel development of technologies from physics," says Austin. "Even now as we see the explosive growth of the gene chip array technology, it is important to realize that many aspects of this technology came from physics," specifically optical lithography.
Physicists have made enormous strides in the past 20 years in developing new nanotechnologies, new imaging technologies, massively parallel data acquisition and storage techniques, and new ways of assembling matter including quantum dot lasers and superconducting interference devices. "We are just beginning to see the applications of these ideas to biology, and if history is any guide, then we will see enormous impacts in biology," says Austin.