PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
In the last decade, biology has become increasingly quantitative and interdisciplinary as borders between disciplines are breached by new knowledge and as technology has advanced our ability to quantify molecules and biological systems with increasing precision. Biologists and scientists in related disciplines must now be facile with a number of different languages: “computer,” “statistics,” and “systems biology” to name just a few. At the forefront of the new biology is the ability to collect, analyze and combine experimental and modeling data using emerging technologies as they become available.
I believe that the understanding and creative use of emerging technologies are the two central themes of interdisciplinary science. Indeed, it is one skill to use a MALDI-TOF mass spectrometer, a real-time PCR machine or a flow cytometer, a second skill to interpret the data and a third skill to understand the underlying principle of the assay. In my experience few biologists combine all these skills. In general, this is because those underlying principles come from a different discipline like chemistry, physics or statistics among others. In this age of an increased reliance on quantitative approaches to measuring biological phenomena, it is imperative to understand the underlying principles to design good experiments. The lack of interdisciplinary understanding is not limited to just biologists of course. Few disciplines have an appreciation of the underlying principles of the other.
How does this affect student learning? In a nutshell, students often are unable to translate simple concepts like hydrogen bonding, acid-base equilibria and hydrophobicity between different classes including general chemistry, molecular biology, organic chemistry and cell physiology. If these simple concepts (or first principles as Richard Feynman liked to refer to them), present in all courses, are not appreciated in an interdisciplinary manner, how can students use emerging technologies effectively?
To achieve this interdisciplinary vision, I am dedicated to use more quantitative approaches to research questions in both research and laboratory courses, the training ground for many future science professionals. Our students desperately need hands-on experience with the tools of quantitative biology and biochemistry in order to fully understand the basic principles guiding the emerging technologies as well as the application of the techniques and the limits of the data generated. Simply put, emerging technologies provide the WOW behind learning and application basic principles over and over again.