The Rift in the Biological Sciences

I can’t speak for each and every one of the other biologist types in the house here at ScienceBlogs, but one comment on Chad’s post on highfalutin particle physicists struck a chord with me. It all starts with this quote getting back at people who think their research is the be all and end all of all science:

One thing that bugs the heck out of me, is when I hear particle physicists talk about their field as if it is all of physics. I have a great love of particle physics, so I’m not dissing the field at all, nor arguing that it isn’t more fundamental, but it rubs me the wrong way to disregard all of the rest of physics that is currently going on. This especially irritates me since it gives students the wrong impression that the only exciting physics is in particle physics.

From there, Chad asks us:

I sometimes wonder if people in other disciplines have the same problem. Not being dissed by particle physicists– everybody gets that– but some sub-field within the discipline acting as if it’s the only interesting thing going on. Do developmental biologists strut around bio meetings as if they’re the only ones doing worthwhile work? Do medical chemists divide chemistry into “drug development” and “stamp collecting?”

This comment hit the nail on the head:

There is some as well between cell biologists, biochemists, molecular geneticists and structural biologists. The lines between all of them though are becoming more and more blurred so it lessening. I do know a few structural biologists who are upset by biochemistry labs doing structural work. Wet labs v. computational labs has become a bigger one along with traditional v. systems (big) biology.

The previous distinctions between biology sub-disciplines have been blurred. Alex has tried to describe each of the types of biologists at his campus, but they are relics of an older time. Cell biologists use molecular genetics tools. Geneticists study the expression of genes as organisms develop. And they’re all evolutionary biologists. As I pointed out the real distinction is between people that generate their own data and those that analyze other people’s data. That would be the wet lab v. computational lab distinction that the commenter pointed out. The computational group can be further split into data miners and theorists.

As someone at the interface of both groups (I mine data and I generate my own), I realize that these distinctions need to be blurred. Computational techniques and technologies have become so powerful that it would be stubborn for an old school wet lab to not take advantage of them. These computational tools allow you to identify interesting problems, efficiently analyze data, and develop models that fit your observations.

On the other hand, many new biologists come from mathematics, computer science, or physics backgrounds. Some of them need a little bit of help learning biology before they can apply their wares to the life sciences, but they make invaluable contributions to the scientific community — whether it be data mining, developing computational tools, or creating new models. But their research is limited if they are unable to generate their own data. The purely computational groups depend on what data are available. If you realize that you need some new data to test your hypothesis, you should be able to generate those data. For example, you can perform some interesting analysis on publicly available sequence and expression data, but a lot of those data come from a single individual of a species. Like I’ve said before: if you want to study evolution, you need polymorphism data.

Before I get too far off on a tangent, let me go back to my original point. The new division is between computational biologists and wet labs. Neither group is doing service to their research goals if they don’t reach out and use the tools from the other community. Blurring the line between the traditional disciplines has worked quite well. There are many groups that straddle the border between research areas, but there are also a lot of wet labs that are reluctant to perform heavy computational work and vice versa. Ideally, you should be able to perform both the wet lab and computational work. But if you have a wet lab and don’t know jack shit about bioinformatics, you can still collaborate with programmers so that you can perform the analyses that have been missing from your research. And if you’re a computational biologist who needs that little bit of extra data to push your paper over the hump, borrow some space in a wet lab and learn how to pipette.


  1. #1 Dior
    August 14, 2006

    I do think that the lines in biology are blurring more, and I have never heard anyone say that it is a bad thing. What is more, in my lab we brought in physical chemists to work on adenovirus, computational biologists to work on structures, and pharmicists to work on gene dilivery and mitigation of the immune response. All this on one virus. The lines don’t even need to be blurred; as biologists we could even use a few phyisicists to look at the data from a biological sideview (they don’t think like most biologists). If this bothers biologists, it does them a dis-service. The problem is the lack of grant money that makes it hard to bring collaborations from other disciplines to come to the table. That we must change.

  2. #2 Nick Anthis
    August 14, 2006

    I think that there is clearly a small amount of resentment and self-importance between the various biological fields, but I haven’t observed anything like what Chad has in physics. When I was in a cell biology lab, I commonly heard statements of the form “_____ is so easy, because all you have to do is get a _______ and you have a paper published.” Examples I heard were “mouse genetics” and “knockout mouse” or “structural biology” and “protein structure”. Being a structural biologist now, I can attest to the fact that things are much more complicated than that.

  3. #3 SMC
    August 14, 2006

    Personally, I’d be happy if there were more public recognition that “math and physics” are not the sum of all science.

    It seems as though every article about the horrible quality of science education and science understanding in the US either states or quotes someone to the effect that “math and physics aren’t taught enough” or “students arrive not understanding math and physics” or something of the sort.

    Not to denigrate math and physics, but it’d be very useful of there was much better understanding of applied sciences, since that’s what most people are exposed to (and mistakenly fear and oppose).

    (Though I do have to say that A) I still think having a mathematics department isolated from the departments that actually apply it is a lot like having a “Grammar” department separated and isolated from the language departments, and B)judging by introductory classes at least, Physics seems to be not so much a science as “natural philosophy”. Not that this isn’t a useful discipline itself…)

  4. #4 SMC
    August 14, 2006

    Followup: Here’s an example (this one about declining science in the UK, so I guess it’s not just the US)

    “Only one in five science teachers has a specialist physics qualification, and one in four chemistry teachers has a specialist qualification in the subject.”[1]

    So – “Science” teachers need specialization in “physics” but “chemistry” teachers only need to worry about “chemistry”?

    (I know, that’s only one small part of the article, but I’ve started noticing a lot of this kind of thing lately…)

    [1] “Long-term threat to economy as UK runs out of scientists, CBI warns” http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/story/0,,1844086,00.html (visited 2006-08-14)

  5. #5 Kathryn
    August 14, 2006

    I think you can find that snobby behavior throughout science, not just aimed at subdisciplines within a discipline. I had a cell biology prof who referred to anything other than cell biology research as “not real science”.

    This is also apparent in what group each discipline ridicules: Physicists make Chemist jokes, Chemists make Biologist jokes, Biologists make Psychologist jokes etc.

  6. #6 apalazzo
    August 16, 2006

    Wet labs v. computational labs has become a bigger one along with traditional v. systems (big) biology.

    I wouldn’t call computational biology or systems “Big Biology”. I have pissed (maybe a little too hard) on the proponents of Big Biology, but criticism is sometimes directed to ideas/trends/fads that are oversold. So oversold that others suffer. That’s what happens when we spend all our resources on sequencing everything for the sake of doing it or measuring the level of every protein just for the sake of doing it. Too much big biology is brainless.

    I agree though that dry and wet labs need to come together. And I do feel that there is much naivete to the computational folk, but as you say, we can only learn from teaming up.

  7. #7 elakazal
    August 18, 2006

    I would be really pleased if people would acknowledge horticultural science as a science. Not only is it a science, it’s the science that keeps you fed everyday, so the least we could get is an acknowledgement that it’s more than just rooting around in the dirt.

    I find it absolutely maddening that the sort of work I do gets dismissed out of hand (looking at flowering), but when some one does the same thing in Arabidopsis, something of no value except as a tool, it’s considered “real science”.

    There’s a major rift between basic and applied plant science (there probably is in most fields, but this is the one I deal with). And there’s a lot of interest from both sides in what the other is doing, but rather than deal with each other, they’re both reinventing lousy versions of the other’s science.

  8. #8 smeutaw
    September 1, 2006

    “I do think that the lines in biology are blurring more, and I have never heard anyone say that it is a bad thing.” To this point, Sean Eddy’s editorial on “Antedisciplinary” Science is worth reading for his opinion (http://compbiol.plosjournals.org/perlserv/?request=get-document&doi=10.1371/journal.pcbi.0010006)

  9. #9 Sunil
    September 1, 2006

    I think the gap between dry and wet labs is decreasing. But it will take time.

    One thing I would have liked to see is a good computational biology course for grad students in most bio/medical sciences programs…..and at least once class for most grad students in computational/mathematical sciences that rigorously puts across biological aspects, with an additional requirement of “rotation” like time spent in a wet/dry lab for the respective students.

  10. #10 Rick
    September 4, 2006

    I find now, at the end of my 5 year (LONG!) degree in biotech engineering, I am ready for work in a wet lab, but lack the skills I will most certainly need in my field of investigation.
    Although it is something I am acquiring now on my own time, it would have been far more useful to already have learned it.
    So I agree with the fading lines, but I believe that these subjects should be learned as parts of a whole.

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