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Question of the month- interdisciplinary research

Posted by , on 29 July 2015

Developmental biology is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, as biologists team up with physicists and mathematicians to address new and classical problems in the field from a new perspective. But should we all be pursuing such an approach or is there still room for ‘pure’ developmental biology approaches? Should we incorporate more physics/mathematics modules in the training of young scientists to facilitate interactions? And is it enough to collaborate with researchers outside your field on specific projects or should labs include mathematicians and physicists working alongside biologists? This month we are asking:

 

To what extent should we be interdisciplinary?

 

Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below! You can comment anonymously if you prefer. We are also collating answers on social media via this Storify. And if you have any ideas for future questions please drop us an email!

 




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6 thoughts on “Question of the month- interdisciplinary research”

  1. In principle this sounds like a good idea, however finding PIs and credentialed people with appropriate expertise go supervise and review interdisciplinary research in developmental biology may be an insurmountable obstacle for up and coming junior scientists with relevant education. Hopefully this temporal misalignment won’t deter passionate individuals from prevailing in the long run.

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  2. The field of developmental biology is interdisciplinary from its very beginnings, embracing concepts and techniques from molecular biology, classical embryology, genetics, physiology, anatomy, evolutionary biology and bioinformatics. There is hardly any other realm of life science which is more interdisciplinary than developmental biology! Nevertheless, we still need MORE input to the field, especially from physics and maths, as suggested above. I believe every lab interested in the conundrums of organismal patterning and morphogenesis would greatly benefit by including researchers well-versed in mathematics and/or physics. I view this as a more promising approach than the mere collaboration between biology-centred and physics-centred labs. However, bringing different experts to work on a common topic would necessitate basic (at least!) understanding of each others’ specialties, and this could be addressed at the stage of post-graduate training. Allocating more time for interdiscplinary training and data analysis (including others’ data!) should not be frowned upon by PhD-curriculum makers. It is increasingly evident that there is considerable discrepancy between the amount of data labs around the globe churn out every day, and the depth of insight we actually gain from the data! We need mathematicians and physicists in our labs, and we also need positions for data analysts (scientists with broad theoretical and experimental knowledge, whose task is to analyse and integrate others’ data), as has been already suggested (Moore, A. (2012), Have we produced enough results yet, sir?. Bioessays, 34: 163). This is, I believe, a most fruitful path for developmental biology research.

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  3. These days in Biology “interdisciplinary” means bringing physical, computational sciences and engineering to bear on biological problems. In this regard there is little doubt that right now is not just desirable but compulsory. However, it is not clear to me what is meant by ‘pure’ developmental biology. In some ways like descriptive embryology passed away as a major focus of the field, the same is happening with what I would call ‘classical developmental biology’ (pure?) a discipline in which a mixture of experimental embryology and genetics have combined for the last forty years to provide some very exciting insights about how organisms make themselves. Classical developmental biology is coming to an end (many people will disagree with this) as the number of insights it produces is dwindling –though the number of genes linked to processes increases (see “the unbearable lightness of being a developmental biologist at the start of the XXI century: http://amapress.gen.cam.ac.uk/?p=1406 ). On the other hand these days, the advent of large scale genomics and transcriptomics, and novel imaging methods, the interactions between cell and developmental biology and an interest in measuring, are posing questions that genetics alone cannot answer. These questions require very different approaches and it is here where the interdisciplinary approaches (defined as above) come into being. We recognized this in Cambridge a few years ago and this is why we are on the 10th year of our Physics of Living Matter symposium (http://plm.eng.cam.ac.uk/) where we explore the interface between the physical and biological sciences, with an emphasis on developmental processes, an area which it should be said, has started to grow over the last few years. One thing we are learning in these symposia is that while there is interest and expectation, it is also early days. Most developmental biologists only use the words of associated with this interface (self organization being a favourite one) rather than apply (or understand) the concepts. But the interest is a good thing.

    Developmental biology is undergoing a transformation and if you are ambitious (in terms of seeking knowledge and not HIF publications) you should embrace interdisciplinarity. An interesting trend in this are is the entrance of physicists into Biology and they are doing very well and teaching is a great deal. There is not much traffic the other way yet but this is an old problem of old and new generations. Slowly it is clear that there is a cohort of young developmental biologists which are a mixture of physics, engineering and biology and this is not only a good thing but also fun. We should definitely adapt our teaching to these trends and introduce, not only more computational methods for biologists but also some physics and, the other way around, some Biology for physicists.

    So, in brief the real future of developmental biology lies in its blending with physics and engineering. It should be pointed out that there is a sense of ‘deja vue’ in all this and that some of the best biology of the 50s and the 60s was done at this interface.

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  4. I would say that we should be interdisciplinary to the extent that the question demands it. That is,
    “A question well put is half solved.”~Dewey

    But this is not as simple as it appears. Constructing well-posed problems is hard, and the comments above illustrate some actual and political issues with which we are faced in mixing cultures during transformation.

    Even the way the original question is posed exposes a worldview in which the comfort of maintaining old ways (even though it might be “coming to an end”) is preferred over doing something viewed as “risky”, which entails new learning and dealing with uncertainty.

    For example, no one ever asks, “to what extent should we continue to do developmental biology using ONLY classical methods?”

    That is, who has the burden of justification?

    In the end, the leading consideration in how we should act can only be of the nature of an economy; Economy of money, time, thought, and energy.

  5. As an interdisciplinarily trained PhD, I am all for this, but also experiencing some of the above mentioned problems first hand. The danger of being “stuck in the middle” (http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2014/02/21/stuck-in-the-middle) can be very real for young scientists like me. I think we can alleviate this as a community by learning each others languages, managing expectations and reducing prejudice about other fields, not just between biology and physics/maths/engineering/computer science/bioinformatics/…, but also among these various flavours of “hard” sciences.

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