current state of the art

Martin Hofmann martin at zoo.toronto.edu
Thu Nov 7 11:37:10 EST 1991


In article <9111042128.AA03563 at alchemy.chem.utoronto.ca> mroussel at alchemy.chem.utoronto.ca (Marc Roussel) writes:
>In article <kgstbfINNpbv at agate.berkeley.edu> dean2 at garnet.berkeley.edu
>(Dean Pentcheff) writes:
>>In article <DAVIS.91Oct22132657 at pacific.mps.ohio-state.edu>
>>davis at pacific.mps.ohio-state.edu ("John E. Davis") writes:
>>>However, I do have a PhD in theoretical physics.  I am curious about what work
>>>has been done using, say hydrodynamics, in modeling various biological
>>>functions or structures.
>>
>>There has been a fair bit of work done, in a wide variety of biological
>>fields.  [...]
>>Why not more?  Biologists tend
>>not to be mathematically astute (gross generalization, but...)
>
>     I would really like to hear more from biologists on this subject.
>Does it bother you that a lot of interesting biological work is being
>done by non-biologists because so few of you know any non-trivial math?
>I am asking this question out of curiosity.  It is not intended as a
>criticism of biologists or of biology.  I have just noticed that more
>and more physicists and mathematicians are attacking biological problems
>while very few biologists are trained in such a way that they are even
>able to understand some of the more recent advances.  Since I have
>nibbled at the edges of theoretical biology myself, I know that the
>incursion of other scientists in the biological sciences is not without
>its problems:  Lacking a general background in your subject, I find it
>difficult to focus on truly biologically interesting problems; I often
>get diverted by mathematically interesting (but, I think, biologically
>meaningless) studies.  Can amateurs like me make a real contribution to
>biology?  I think so, but I think that mathematically-trained biologists
>could do a great deal more.  I look forward to your comments.
>
I have a couple of thoughts on this topic. but first my background.  I 
recieved a BSc in Astrophysics and so have a reasonable background in math
and physics.  For my graduate work I switched into the field of neurobiology.
I have just completed a thesis, fairly theoretical, on visual processing.
It seems to me that there are a couple of possible approaches to the 
problem of who should do theoretical biology.  The first, which is the route
I took, is get training in the hard sciences and then switch fields.  This
requires time, always a precious commodity, to start learning biology from
scratch.  This is not trivial, but is almost certainly easier than trying
to learn math and physics after formal biological training.  I have noticed
there are a number of people in my field who appear to have taken this route.
A second route is collaboration between biologists and physicists, engineers,
computer scientists, chemists etc.  I can think of a couple of examples of 
this here that have produced interesting results.

As to biologists' attitudes, these of course vary, but there a number of
biologists who, although they may lack the training, are very interested 
in theoretical problems in biology.  One common approach is to recruit
graduate students who do have training in the hard sciences, for example
my supervisor is very reluctant to accept graduate students who do not have
basic training in math and physics, and has had a number of recent students
who came from physics and engineering.  In this way the biological expertise
of the supervisor is combined with the math etc. of the students.
Unfortunately not all people fit in this category, there seem to many 
biologists who do not recognize the importance of theoretical biology.
This may make it harder to get grants, jobs etc. in biology departments.
However, to end on an optimistic note, it seems that this may be slowly
changing.

-- 
The world is sacred.  You cannot improve it.	| Martin Hofmann, U of Toronto
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.	| martin at zoo.toronto.edu
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.	| martin at zoo.utoronto.ca
	Lao Tsu, "Tao Te Ching"			| uunet!attcan!utzoo!martin
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