The idea behind interdisciplinary science is simple: a few scientists with different specializations tackle the same problem. Varied points of view will come up with different solutions and together we will stand a better chance to solve the scientific mysteries of our time and create solutions to pressing issues like global warming and cancer. But – are scientists from different fields still able to communicate? Do they, after years and years of specialized training, still speak the same language?
For example, let’s compare physics and biology. Physicists explain the world in terms of mathematical formulas. They are trained to dig for solid principles expressed in differential equations, they simulate, and they describe patterns applicable to the world in general. Biologists, on the other hand, traditionally gather empirical observations, collect a vast array of details about each individual cell or organism or signaling cascade and try to find an individual mechanism behind each and every object of study. This means that even though biologists share the dream of finding a grand theory, they often have a tough time generalizing their data, as their focus tends to be on differences, rather than similarities. These two fundamentally different approaches have naturally evolved in those disciplines. Which raises the question if it is even possible to, for instance, find the key to biological questions using physical methods. Perhaps mathematical models are intrinsically inadequate to describe biological systems?
David Sumpter, a mathematics professor at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, would answer this question with a clear ‘no’. His research focuses on the mathematical description of social behavior in insects. In a long-standing collaboration with biologist Madeleine Beekman, he studies the foraging behavior of ants. In Beekman’s lab in Australia, scientists build tiny ant-sized mazes and bridges and record exactly when which ant crawls where, while Sumpter and his people organize the data into equations and computer simulations. And they generate amazing results. In a 2001 paper they describe the mathematics behind a switch from chaotic to organized foraging behavior that depends on colony size and the difficulty of finding food . And in a more recent study they account for how ants’ responses to ‘exploration’ and ‘exploitation’ pheromones determine behavior in ant colonies . He admits, though, that most of his formulas contain a stochastic element, which “explains” noise in the system and makes predictions virtually impossible. The apple always falls from the tree in a straight line, but the ant may chose to walk wherever.
Sumpter is in his mid thirties. A boyish smile and curious eyes decorate his face, and his dark blond hair is kept short for convenience. He dresses casually and his shoulders fall slightly forward when he walks, fitting with his humble nature. He is an engaging speaker and everything about him is simply inviting. He is the type of guy you immediately want to take out for a cup of coffee. It probably takes someone like him to breach the scientific gap. Indeed, when I ask him why so few mathematicians follow his path, he says: “I think the stereotype of the mathematician is mostly correct. Many of us just love sitting over our formulas but aren’t very good at communicating. If you want to work with a biologist, you have to talk to them first.”
Though David, too, gets frustrated sometimes. He feels that every so often biologists approach him to just quickly get that one last figure to a paper, showing off a shiny mathematical model. “They want equations to make their work look sexier, but don’t really care about what the model says. Or maybe they don’t believe in it.” In fact, the reason might be much more mundane: many biologists simply do not understand the implications of a set of mathematical formulas. And on the other side of the collaborative equation, Sumpter is wary of diving into biology any further than ants marching after food. He does not feel too comfortable with biology beyond animal behavior and believes that for anything else he would have to trust collaborators more than he wants to.
Training researchers in several disciplines may be the way to circumvent the hurdles created by lack of knowledge and need for communication. Students can now enroll in biochemistry and biophysics programs, supervisors encourage their graduate students to go and try something new during their postdoc, and some funding agencies specifically sponsor individuals who want to explore fields that are far from their original training. The Human Frontier Science Program, which also funds Sumpter and Beekman’s research, provides grants to physics graduates who want to explore biology during their postdoctoral training. Justin Bois, who was awarded one of these cross-disciplinary fellowships, has just completed a joint postdoc between the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and the MPI for Physics of Complex Systems, both located in Dresden, Germany. A physicist by training, he spent his postdoc years analyzing the mechanics and kinetics behind pattern formation in the C. elegans embryo. His work, recently published in Nature, explains the physical requirements for the sudden asymmetric distribution of cellular components that is triggered in a homogenous egg cell by fertilization . Justin feels comfortable talking about the biological systems that have attracted his interest and constant exchange between him and his close colleagues, biologist Mirjam Mayer and fellow physicist Martin Depken, lead to the team’s success.
Clearly, interdisciplinary collaborations work and are particularly successful when team players use the methods of mathematics, physics, and chemistry to study biological systems. In the end, however, rather than achieving true interdisciplinarity, we might simply be in the process of creating more specialized fields, those of mathematical biology and physics of complex systems. Because, in the end, someone has to understand everything that goes into a paper.
1.Beekman, M., D.J. Sumpter, and F.L. Ratnieks, Phase transition between disordered and ordered foraging in Pharaoh’s ants. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2001. 98(17): p. 9703-6.
2.Dussutour, A., et al., The role of multiple pheromones in food recruitment by ants. J Exp Biol, 2009. 212(Pt 15): p. 2337-48.
3.Mayer, M., et al., Anisotropies in cortical tension reveal the physical basis of polarizing cortical flows. Nature. 467(7315): p. 617-21.
This post is written by Siggi Auweter. Siggi has a PhD in biochemistry and currently works as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada