Friday, November 25, 2016

Intermediate Physicist for Medicine and Biology

In my more contemplative moments, I sometimes ponder: who am I? Or perhaps better: what am I? In my personal life I am many things: son, husband, father, brother, dog-lover, die-hard Cubs fan, Asimov aficionado, Dickens devotee, and mid-twentieth-century-Broadway-musical-theatre admirer.

What I am professionally is not as clear. By training I am a physicist. Each month I read Physics Today and my favorite publication is the American Journal of Physics. But in many ways I don’t fit well in physics. I don’t understand much of what’s said at our weekly physics colloquium, and I have little or no interest in topics such as high energy physics. Quantum mechanics frightens me.

The term biophysicist doesn’t apply to me, because I don’t work at the microscopic level. I don’t care about protein structures or DNA replication mechanisms. I am a macroscopic guy.

My work overlaps that of biomedical engineers, and indeed I publish frequently in biomedical engineering journals. But my work is not applied enough for engineering. In the 1990s, when searching desperately for a job, I considered positions in biomedical engineering departments, but I was never sure what I would teach. I have no idea what’s taught in engineering schools. Ultimately I decided that I fit better in a physics department.

Mathematical biologist is a better definition of me. I build mathematical models of biological systems for a living. But I am at heart neither a mathematician nor a biologist. I find math papers--full of  theorem-proof-theorem-proof--to be tedious. Biologists celebrate life’s diversity, which is exactly the part of biology I like to sweep under the rug.

I’m not a medical physicist. Nothing I have worked on has actually healed anyone. Besides, medical physicists work in nuclear medicine and radiation therapy departments at hospitals, and they get paid a lot more that I do. No, I am definitely not a medical physicist. Perhaps one of the most appropriate labels is biological physicist—whatever that means.

Another question is: at what level do I work? I am not a popularizer of science or a science writer (except when writing this blog, which is more of a hobby; my “Hobbie hobby”). I write research papers and publish them in professional journals. Yet, in these papers I build toy models that are as simple as possible (but no simpler!). Reviewers of my manuscripts write things like “the topic is interesting and the paper is well-written, but the model is too simple; it fails to capture the underlying complexity of the system.” When my simple models grow too complicated, I change direction and work on something else. So my research is neither at an introductory level nor an advanced level.

I guess the best label for me is: Intermediate Physicist for Medicine and Biology.

1 comment:

  1. I like the "biological physicist" term, too, though it hasn't really caught on! Unrelated to this post: you'll probably find this article interesting: http://www.pnas.org/content/113/49/14133.abstract

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