How much should you know outside of your field?

I'm a bit under the weather today but I wanted to at least share with you an interesting career development consideration pointed out by the always-excellent medicinal chemist blogger, Derek Lowe at In the Pipeline.

In his post, What Should Non-Chemists Know About Medicinal Chemistry, Anyway?, Derek posits:

Here's a topic that I was discussing with some colleagues not too long ago: how much do we need to know about each other's specialties, anyway? I'm assuming that the answer is "more than nothing", although if someone wants to make the zilch case, I'd be interested in hearing it done.

A nice comment thread has developed there. Lowe writes from the perspective of a chemist in a pharmaceutical company but I believe that his considerations extend to academic research as well, especially with the increased emphasis on interdisciplinary and translational research.

I consider myself fortunate to have been trained in pharmacology when "true" pharmacology departments were more abundant (i.e., not just a bunch of in vitro biochemists). Having to interact with chemists, stop-flow enzyme kineticists, physiologists using in vivo and organ bath systems, and physicians with research laboratories, I feel that I can be somewhat conversant on a variety of issues outside my immediate research area. Being able to explain the chemistry of glucuronidation sites or the clinical pharmacology relevance of high plasma protein drug binding are obvious extensions of what I should know. I've also learned to recognize when it may not be appropriate to ask a chemist colleague for more than a milligram or two of a new compound.

But knowledge beyond that, I think, is even more important for my research program and department. I tell students that you never know where you will end up working and a breadth of knowledge is important to develop even while pursuing the myopic drilldown of PhD dissertation research. Particularly if one ends up in a drug company, you will have to interact often with team members across the drug development pipeline and many go/no-go decisions will be made because of limitations outside your area, no matter how novel your pharmacological target may be. And yes, it is a problem in trying to make a drug out of a compound that only dissolves in DMSO.

So I'll throw open Derek's question to those of you in academia: How much chemistry do you expect biologists to know or how much biology should we expect chemists to know? Some of it is simple courtesy and helps develop mutual respect among research colleagues. But some of my colleagues think that the wider you can think, the more likely it is for your research program to make greater impact. (I can't find it right now but I recall Brown and Goldstein holding forth somewhere on how a strong basis in chemistry is essential for physician-scientists). There's no one right answer and I am certain there is no consensus, and I feel that the need for breadth will vary based on how far along one is in one's career.

But in your area, how much do you expect yourself and your trainees to know in areas afield?

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This is not a straightforward question. As a medicinal chemist, I feel an obligation to understand the biology behind what I am doing, and I am broadly trained (including Pharmacology from a real Pharmacology Dept.!). I do not expect as much in return from the biologist collaborator; I don't expect them to understand synthesis or characterization, but I do expect them to appreciate structure and understand what is and is not feasible (I could say this about my physical chemistry collaborators too). However, my laboratory has a history of doing nearly everything ourselves, including synthetic methodology development, natural product total synthesis, analog design, in vitro cell-based cytotoxicity, fermentation, DNA binding studies of naturally occurring cross-linking agents, and (in collaboration) detailed molecular modeling of the binding and bonding of agents to DNA. The one thing we've never done is animal studies.

As a chemist, I am biased, believing that biologists, pharmacologists, physicians etc., should understand structure and have an appreciation for organic chemistry. Not many do. Then again, I am probably one of the few scientists who has trained an M.D./Ph.D. student in organic/medicinal chemistry (they no longer allow chemistry as an option for the Ph.D. degree).

Just some thoughts, off the cuff.


Oh man, the issue to drugs only dissolving in DMSO hits so close to home with me! I swear, essentially all the drugs I test cannot be dissolved in water.

By MitoScientist (not verified) on 21 Jan 2010 #permalink

Industrial chemist here... I worked for years in a large industrial chemical plant but because of my role with customers I learned a fair bit about pulp and paper, some about mining, quite a bit about polymer manufacturing and applications, and some about pollution control technology and process control technology.
Regrettably I know next to nothing about biology, but my daughter is a graduate biologist, so we help one another out.
My concerns are around the fact that a lot of HS science teachers have no real knowledge or experience about the many practical applications of the science they are teaching.
I volunteer at my local HS in their science classes and try to open some eyes about why this is useful and why that is a key concept and what that is used for.

Here's my two cents someone who has been firmly entrenched between the two camps for as long as I've been doing science.

Biologists should know enough chemistry to:

1. Not start snoring/freak out when they see a chemical structure in a poster or presentation. All those letters and shapes on signaling network posters represent chemical structures; although you don't need to know them all by heart, you should be able to discuss them comfortably.

2. Understand why certain functionalities are or are not used. For instance, using chloro to replace methyl b/c of drug metabolism concerns.

Chemists should know enough biology to:

1. Not start snoring/freak out when they see a signaling network, cell assay, or animal study. This is where your compounds work (or not) through chemical interactions (refer to #1 for biologists). Having a bit of knowledge of this helps you make better compounds.
2. Understand the output and the utility of assays being used to test their compounds. What does that IC50/EC50 mean? Why are there discrepancies b/t assays w/ purified protein vs. cells vs. in vivo? (I would note that this is one every scientist regardless of training should be doing).

There is so much more to say, but I'm trying to refrain from putting a blog post here on Abel's blog :)

I have a friend who is a family physician MD who attended pharmacy school because he wanted a better understanding/knowledge base of the subject than he was getting from medical school.

More is usually better. How much is enough? To paraphrase a J. P. Morgan, if you have to ask then you don't know enough outside of your field.

By Pat Moore (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

In short, "depends".

It gets to a point where people have to touch on so many other connected disciplines that they can't hope to know much about them all, so have to pick and choose a bit.

I'm a (structural) computational biologist. I could argue that more of all of these are needed from biology in general, but not any one person: chemistry, physics, statistics, mathematics, bioinformatics, and different "levels" and areas of biology.

In practice I suspect most people lean to what meshes with their particular research problems so in the end my answer is: everyone should do basic undergrad biochemistry, obviously, but beyond that, "depends".

A quick answer to how much should you know outside your field is "A lot", least if you're in some of the sciences.

As a wildlife biologist, who also teaches first and 2nd year biology courses as well as first year chemistry, I see biology and chemistry (and other disciplines) almost like a colour gradient where one colour imperceptibly turns into another colour. The difference between the two colours are obvious on the opposite edges, but so much harder to spot in the middle parts.

As a student we took 2 undergrad standard chem courses, then organic chem, followed by biochem in our 3rd or 4th year. These were the required courses for anyone wanting to graduate with a BSc in biology.

Since there is so much overlap I think a biologist who doesn't understand basic chemistry is severely handicapped, either working in his/her own field, or when listening/reading other studies (e.g. understanding how isotopes in bird feathers indicate where the birds have been feeding; or understanding how and why pH changes, how proton pumps operate, how glycolysis occurs--if you understand how various molecules are split, reform or are changed, it enhances understanding of many pathways (metabolic pathways, photosynthesis, chemosynthesis)).

Other disciplines we may need to know depend on our fields of study. To some extent we need a whole gamut of biologies (ecology, evolution, limnology, invert and vert zoology, botany, molecular and cell biology, some marine biology etc), experimental design and biostatistics (enough stats to know when to call in a real expert), some basic atmospheric physics and understanding of climatology (so we can understand how a changing climate is affecting, or will be affecting, an ecosystem or particular organism and associated webs within that ecosystem), and things like oceanography (if you're working with marine organisms), geology (evolution, paleontological work), volcanism (if you're studying life at thermal pools or ocean vents).

Plus there's a smattering of anthropology (for when you're working with First Nation peoples in a far northern community), some mechanical skills (for when your equipment breaks down in the middle of nowhere), and some survival skills (weather too bad for helicopter to pick you up, trapped in a sudden blizzard, fall into cold water). Hmm, also might need some knowledge of the law (different Acts, regulations, treaties and how they are applied).

My biased view is that if someone doesn't have an understanding of other disciplines outside of their own, then what are they doing in the sciences in the first place? Being in the sciences usually means you went in because you had a driving curiosity about things, and once you began to understand your own field it naturally leads to other fields, and that curiosity, that need to know, will almost force you to learn more about other disciplines (sometimes even well outside your own field--e.g. for me, astronomy and planetary science--in case they ever find life on another planet, I'm all ready to be an xenobiologist :-).

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 24 Jan 2010 #permalink