- Identify big picture goals and issues in biophysics, and
- Consider ways to alleviate suffering and further human health.
Anyway, it was a VERY interesting meeting in general, and so I think I’m going to split this discussion up based on themes across a couple different blog posts, probably over the course of the next week or two. Here are some topics I’ll write about:
Exactly what is all this cell type stuff about
Exactly what do we mean by mechanism
I need a coach
What are some Manhattan Projects in biology/medicine
Maybe some others
So the conference started with everyone introducing themselves and their interests (research and otherwise) in a 5 minute lightning talk, time strictly enforced. First off, can I just say, what a thoughtful group of folks! It is clear that everyone came prepared to think outside their own narrow interests, which is very refreshing.
The next thing I noticed a lot of was a lot of hand-wringing about what exactly we mean by biophysics, which is what I’ll talk about for the rest of this blog post. (Please keep in mind that this is very much an opinionated take and does not necessarily reflect that of the conferees.) To me, basically, biophysics, as seemingly defined at this meeting, as a whole needs a pretty fundamental rebranding. Raise your hand if biophysics means one of the following to you:
- Lipid rafts
- Ion channels
- A bunch of old dudes trying to convince each other how smart they are (sorry, cheap shot intended for all physicists) ;)
I viewed this meeting as a good opportunity to maybe take score and see how well our community has done. I think Steve put it pretty concisely when he said “So, where’s the beef?” I.e., it's been a while, and so what does our little systems biology corner of the world have to show for itself in the world of biology more broadly? Steve posed the question at dinner: “What are the top 10 contributions from biophysics that have made it to textbook-level biology canon?” I think we came up with two: Hodgkin and Huxley’s model of action potentials, gene expression “noise”, and Luria and Delbrück’s work on genetic heritability (and maybe kinetic proofreading; other suggestions more than welcome!). Ouch. So one big goal of the meeting was to identify where biophysics might go to actually deliver on the promise and excitement of the early 2000s. Note: Rob had a long list of examples of cool contributions, but none of them has gotten a lot of traction with biologists.
I’ll report more on some specific ideas for the future later, but for now, here’s my personal take on part of the issue. With the influx of physicists came an influx of physics ideas. And I think this historical baggage mostly distracts from the problems we might try to solve (Stephan Grill made this point as well, that we need something fundamentally new ways of thinking about problems). This baggage from physics is I think a problem both strategically and tactically. At the most navel-gazy level, I feel like discussions of “Are we going to have Newton’s laws for biology” and “What is going to be the hydrogen atom of the cell” and “What level of description should we be looking at” never really went anywhere and feel utterly stale at this point. On a more practical level, one issue I see is trying to map quantitative problems that come up in biology back to solved problems in physics, like the renormalization group or Hamiltonian dynamics or what have you. Now, I’m definitely not qualified to get into the details of these constructs and their potential utility, but I can say that we’ve had physicists who are qualified for some time now, and I think I agree with Steve: where’s the beef?
I think I agree with Stephan that perhaps we as a community perhaps need to take stock of what it is that we value about the physics part of biophysics and then maybe jettison the rest. To me, the things I value about physics are quantitative rigor and the level of predictive power that goes with it (more on that in blog post on mechanism). I love talking to folks who have a sense for the numbers, and can spot when an argument doesn’t make quantitative sense. Steve also mentioned something that I think is a nice way to come up with fruitful problems, which is looking at existing data through a quantitative lens to be able to find paradoxes in current qualitative thinking. To me, these are important ways in which we can contribute, and I believe will have a broader impact in the biological community (and indeed already has through the work of a number of “former” systems biologists).
To me, all this raises a question that I tried to bring up at the meeting but that didn’t really gain much traction in our discussions, which is how do we define and build our community? So far, it’s been mostly defined by what it is not: well, we’re quantitative, but not genomics; we’re like regular biology, but not really; we’re… just not this and that. Personally, I think our community could benefit from a strong positive vision of what sort of science we represent. And I think we need to make this vision connect with biology. Rob made the point, which is certainly valid, that maybe we don’t need to care about what biologists think about our work. I think there’s room for that, but I feel like building a movement would require more than us just engaging in our own curiosities.
Which of course begs the question of why we would need to have a “movement” anyway. I think there’s a few lessons to learn from our genomics colleagues, who I think have done a much better job of creating a movement. I think there are two main benefits. One is attracting talent to the field and building a “school of thought”. The other is attracting funding and so forth. Genomics has done both of these extremely well. There are dangers as well. Sometimes genomics folks sound more like advocates than scientists, and it’s important to keep science grounded in data. Still, overall, I think there are huge benefits. Currently, our field is a bunch of little fiefdoms, and like it or not, building things bigger than any one person involves a political dimension.
So how do we define this field? One theme of the conference that came up repeatedly was the idea of Hilbert Problems, which for those who don’t know, is a list of open math problems set out in 1900 by David Hilbert, and they were very influential. Can we perhaps build a field around a set of grand challenges? I find that idea very appealing. Although I think that given that I’ve increasingly come to think of biology as engineering instead of science, I wonder if maybe phrasing these questions instead in engineering terms would be better, sort of like a bunch of biomedical Manhattan Projects. I’ll talk about some ideas we came up with in a later blog post.
Anyway, more in the coming days/weeks…