Friday, June 26, 2009

Physics Meets Biology

Readers of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology may find a news feature by Jonathan Knight published in the September 19, 2002 issue of Nature interesting. The article “Physics Meets Biology: Bridging the Culture Gap” (Volume 419, Page 244–246) begins
“In late July, several dozen physicists with an interest in biology gathered at the Colorado mountain resort of Snowmass for a birthday celebration. Hans Frauenfelder, a physicist who began studying proteins decades ago, turned 80 this year. But unofficially, the physicists were celebrating something else—a growing feeling that their discipline’s mindset will be crucial to reaping the harvest of biologys postgenomic era.
It continues:
“Biology today is where physics was at the beginning of the twentieth century,” observes José Onuchic, who is the co-director of the new Center for Theoretical Biological Physics (CTBP) at the University of California, San Diego. It is faced with a lot of facts that need an explanation.

Physicists believe that they can help, bringing a strong background in theory and the modeling of complexity to nudge the study of molecules and cells in a fresh direction. What has been all too rare in biology is the symbiosis between theory and experiment that is routine in physics, says Laura Garwin, director of research affairs at Harvard Universitys Bauer Center for Genomics Research, who has made her own transition to biology—she was once Natures physical-sciences editor.
The article concludes
“Onuchic believes that immersing young physicists in the culture of biology is the key. At the CTBP, postdocs train in both disciplines simultaneously, developing projects that involve two labs, one in biology and one in physics. They attend two sets of group meetings, and so learn the language and mentality of both disciplines at the same time. They get inside the culture of the two fields, Onuchic says. They get comfortable with the vocabulary and the journals. Life in both labs is more important than any classes you can take.

Time will tell whether the new generation of biological physicists avoid becoming the lonely children of biology. But for now, the prospects look bright. We have always been the odd kids in the playground, says Onuchic. But we never gave up, and now we are becoming very popular.”

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