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Twelve tips for engaging with biologists, as told by a physicist

Sarah Bohndiek

Physicist Sarah Bohndiek.Credit: Sarah Bohndiek

It’s amazing how many of biologist Ken Kosik’s points resonate with my experience as a physicist working in the opposite direction. I enjoyed my training in physics largely because it didn’t involve rote learning (needed by biologists to get that encyclopaedic knowledge) and it allowed me to derive much of the material from a few key equations and principles.

In his column, Ken notes that when a physicist says they do not understand something in biology, they are not requesting a lengthy ‘biology 101’ explanation. But I do sometimes want a biology 101 refresher so I can gather a deeper understanding of the biological problem while I think about how to address it.

Ken also talks about being uncomfortable with uncertainty. Personally, I can be quite comfortable with uncertainty when I can take steps to control it; it’s just that, in biological systems, I normally have to accept that I can’t.

A deeper understanding

The PhD I received from University College London in 2008 was in radiation physics, with a focus on evaluating the potential of CMOS image sensors (the silicon behind most smartphone cameras) for application in medical X-ray-diffraction studies.

Most of this research took place in a dark room, where I examined the optical response of the image sensors, but because I was in a department of medical physics and bioengineering, I was exposed to a range of biomedical challenges — including cancer detection.

As I progressed through my studies, I realized that I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of cancer itself and how we might exploit its biology so we could use non-invasive imaging to find the disease.

I hadn’t studied biology since I was 16, so I started looking for postdoctoral positions in ‘friendly’ environments — biophysics, bio-engineering and so on. But I soon realized that, to truly understand cancer, I needed to break out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in that environment.

My first postdoc was in Kevin Brindle’s biochemistry laboratory at the University of Cambridge, UK. I learnt how to hold a pipette, run a magnetic resonance imaging system, conduct animal experiments and design biology studies.

In return, I fixed temperamental magnets, wrote hardware-control code and supervised some of the lab’s more physical-sciences-oriented projects. After three years, I had a much greater understanding of cancer biochemistry and how to conduct in vivo imaging studies, but I was missing exposure to clinical applications and connection to my previous research home in optics.

My second postdoc, with Sam Gambhir in the department of radiology at Stanford University, California, took me back to my roots. I explored new projects in optics, trying to make imaging with optics faster and cheaper than before and opening new horizons in fields such as endoscopy.

As part of Stanford’s Molecular Imaging Program, I saw teams build new technologies in the lab and take them through to first-in-human studies. I was inspired by Sam’s dedication to revolutionizing early cancer detection and his incredible passion for transforming technology into clinical trials. That passion still drives me in my current role at the University of Cambridge, UK, where the mission of my interdisciplinary team is to advance our understanding of tumour evolution using next-generation-imaging sciences. We operate between the department of physics and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and this gives us access to a community of optical physicists as well as cancer biologists, and a translational pipeline through to clinical application.

Build synergy

I’m a technology geek at heart. I love to dive into the underlying physics when I design optics and to explore the engineering of new devices; but, for me, the story is never complete without seeing these methods through to application. I feel that the research path I explore today is a synergy of all my experiences.

I am often asked what I learnt as I traversed this path from physics to medicine. The following are the key steps I had to take during my own personal development, which prepared me well to embrace my interdisciplinary career.

1. Learn the language

Just as with a foreign language, the fastest way to become fluent in the language of a new scientific discipline is to embed yourself inside it and practise regularly. For me, learning the language was the most important reason why I moved from physics to biochemistry for my first postdoc.

2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable

I went from being one of the most knowledgeable people in my research field at the end of my PhD to knowing less than most of the first-year PhD students in my new lab. For me, that meant I was doing something right, but you do have to be OK with taking that hit and spending time building a new skill set.

3. Don’t forget that you bring unique skills

I had a lot to learn along my journey, but I brought useful skills at each stage. My quantitative mindset was valuable in designing imaging experiments, my engineering skills were useful for fixing broken equipment and my bottom-up physics approach to problems offered a fresh perspective.

4. Test biological-research hypotheses

Sometimes you’ll bring a quantitative perspective that enables you to test a hypothesis or embark on a research topic that wasn’t accessible before. Don’t be afraid to ask the biological question yourself rather than waiting for your collaborators to provide an answer.

5. Ask questions

I had to, and there are no stupid ones. I also attended introductory lectures for first-year undergraduates to fill in gaps in my knowledge. Going back to school and admitting what you do not know is crucial.

6. Embrace uncertainty

I continue to be amazed by the complexity of biology and hence the uncertainty in results. Unfortunately, it’s likely that I’ll never be as certain about anything in biology as I can be about new discoveries in physics.

7. Learn statistics

Having a quantitative background doesn’t necessarily mean you really understand statistics. I had to dive back into statistics to design the best biological experiments.

8. Don’t lose touch with your roots

Being able to continually innovate at the interface of physics and biology means staying grounded in the physical sciences, but this can be hard to do when you are in a biological department. To compete for faculty positions, you need to be able to teach your subject, so find ways to keep it fresh in your mind, as I did, for example, by teaching physics in undergraduate or graduate courses.

9. Do not blindly accept dogma

Challenging prevailing ideas in biology using your perspective can bring about revolutions. I greatly admire colleagues who have upturned decades of accepted dogma using quantitative methods that were not even considered by the biological community.

10. Perfect your pitch

Working across disciplines means you’ll inevitably be talking at conferences and meetings to groups of scientific non-specialists; the best communicators perfect a balance of generalist and specialist material in presentations and make their language accessible to all.

11. Avoid equations during presentations

It’s not just biologists who would prefer not to see them. Illustrate equations with graphs and visuals as much as possible. If you do have to include equations, write them on a board in real time so your audience can follow your guided explanation — don’t just flash them up on the screen.

12. Find a good mentor

Finally, and most importantly, I would not be where I am today without my incredible mentors. When you move disciplines, you need people who can help you to integrate into a new community, show you how to navigate a new funding landscape and advise on expectations for junior faculty members, when the emphasis on publication and impact varies dramatically between disciplines.

The future

More unified training, encompassing physics and engineering applied to biology and medicine, will help to equip the next generation of researchers with the skills they need to operate across these disciplinary boundaries.

I still advocate for specialist training in one field as an undergraduate and then broadening research horizons gradually through advanced academic training.

A strong element of academic achievement is community recognition and networking; moving too rapidly between fields can make it challenging to build a reputation for excellence. Imaging is kind in this respect: regardless of how you form an image, there are many commonalities in the research that mean it is relatively easy to tell a story within your career and maintain connections along that journey.

Building that story and your profile will ultimately be crucial, no matter what path you choose to take.

Nature 577, 283-284 (2020)


This is an article from the Nature Careers community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.


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