Anthony Watts, chair of the British Biophysical Society and co-chair of the International Biophysics Congress in 2017, talks to Susan Curtis about the physical tools and techniques that are opening up new vistas in biological research.

SC: How would you define biophysics?

AW: As I said when I opened one of eight UK events during Biophysics Week in March: "Put 100 biophysicists in a room and ask them for a definition of 'biophysics', and you will get 100 answers. Come back a year later, and the same people will give you different definitions."

In biophysics we develop new physical tools – or exploit existing ones - to answer biological questions. Some people regard biophysicists as little more than technicians, but there's more to it than that. We create new areas of biological science, pushing technology to its limit to gain fresh insights.

A recent article traced the emergence of biophysics as a distinct discipline to a "gang of four": Emil du Bois-Reymond, Ernst von Brücke, Hermann von Helmholtz and Carl Ludwig (Biophys. J. 110 E01). The first three were students of the German physiologist Johannes Müller, who in 1847 set out to reject the prevailing notion that special biological laws control the forces within living organisms. Instead, the group sought to explain biological function using the same laws that underpin physical and chemical phenomena.

And I understand that UK scientists have played an important role in establishing biophysics as a discipline?

Yes, I am chair of the British Biophysical Society (BBS), which was founded in the early 1960s by Nobel prizewinners such as Andrew Huxley, A V Hill, Max Perutz, Maurice Wilkins, Sidney Brenner and John Kendrew. They felt a need to recognize the impact that physical methods were having in the life sciences "to encourage and disseminate developments in the application of physical and chemical concepts to biological systems" (Science 124 1233).

Several other groups have emerged from the BBS, including the British Crystallography Association and the NMR Discussion Group. Now both the Institute of Physics (IOP) and the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) have groups devoted to biological research. These groups provide cross-representation for the BBS, plus we are also an adhering body of the International Biophysics Union (IUPAB) and the European Biophysical Societies Association (EBSA).

I see you are a fellow of both the RSC and the IOP, as well the Royal Society of Biology and the Biophysical Society. What are the challenges and opportunities of working in such an interdisciplinary field?

Both semantics and acceptance are crucial. Semantics is important because we must always use terms, phrases and words that are appropriate for the audience. In a physics environment, the tools or the underlying principals are the focus of interest, while modelling or structural data are paramount in chemistry or biorganic synthesis. Throwing out equations can turn one audience off, while for another, most of the questions are about the analysis.

Gaining acceptance within traditional disciplines can also be frustrating. Everyone I interact with, whether in seminars, research collaborations or in teaching, are very capable in their own areas, but frequently there are barriers and prejudices. I have worked with traditionally trained chemists, physicists and theorists, and it is always very rewarding when we can join our expertise into answering new questions, since each can bring a new and different angle to a problem.

The major difficulty with acceptance is within the funding bodies. I applied for my first research grant in 1980, but the application bounced around because none of the committees for chemistry, physics or biology wanted to handle it, let alone fund it. In the 35 years since then, I have had many similar experiences; just last year the physics and engineering research council sent back a grant as being "too biological", while the biology funding body said it was "too technological". The field suffers as a result.

In your own research you take a "hypothesis-driven" approach. Could you explain what you mean by that?

We look at a specific biological question, which may have emerged from another series of experiments, and then test a possible explanation using any method that will yield an answer. In my lab, we exploit all available techniques to study biomembranes, and we have used several methods to study biomembranes for the first time. This is exciting. We are as happy to collaborate as we are to develop skills in-house; it is the science that drives us. More recent work has evolved into clinical trials of novel medical treatments, which is bringing a new edge to our work.

Who or what inspired you to follow biophysics as a research career?

Two inspirational teachers, Ron (physics) and Joe (biology) Meredith, at my secondary school, Ludlow Grammar School. They allowed us to play with equipment, build it, experiment ourselves, and inspired us to learn. I also enjoyed maths and chemistry, and did not want to give any of them up, so I found a subject called "biophysics" as an undergraduate degree at the University of Leeds.

I knew, even as an undergraduate, that I wanted to do research. I did not go home during the vacations, preferring instead to work in the lab. My tutors will remind me of my lack of sparkle academically, but I loved benchwork and analysing the data. My PhD with Peter Knowles in Leeds cemented my passion for research, and Peter was an inspirational tutor who listened to my ideas and allowed me to develop into an independent researcher.

Today, with less than two years until retirement, I am still just as passionate about science, and I still want to encourage bright young scientists to stay in research.

What advice would you offer students who are interested in pursuing a career in biophysics?

Keep a broad base in your studies, and look at areas of science that are fast moving. These will excite you most. Keep an open mind, and look across artificial boundaries within science.

In 2017 IUPAB will join forces with the EBSA to organize a truly international biophysics conference. What prompted these two organizations to combine their efforts?

Every six years, the triennial IUPAB and biennial EBSA congresses clash. EBSA is always in Europe – typically attracting 1300-1500 delegates - while IUPAB has been outside Europe for its last three events.

So the opportunity to bring a joint IUPAB and EBSA congress to Edinburgh was too good to miss. The IUPAB council supported the idea of organizing a joint conference with the BBS, and by association with EBSA. One of my colleagues here at Oxford, Andrew Turberfield, is also chair of the IOP's Biological Physics group, so we thought of using the IOP's excellent conference office to guarantee success and relieve the scientists of the organizational aspects. Getting four organizations to work together can have it challenges, but the IOP is a super group to work with and everything is going very well.

As one of the chairs of the joint meeting, what do you hope to achieve with such a major international event?

It will offer a fantastic opportunity to showcase the best of contemporary biophysics, both from the UK and internationally. I hope it will enthuse young people to get interested in the area, and expose new methods, systems and approaches to a wider audience.

I always learn something new at these large conferences, since they are always varied and exciting. Some prefer highly focussed small meetings, but this can lead to introverted thinking. One large biophysics congress every so often is always mind-opening.

Which areas of biophysics are particularly exciting at the moment? What key themes do you hope to showcase during the Congress?

Single-molecule studies are in vogue, with high-resolution microscopy opening up new opportunities for research. New detectors and analytical methods are also raising the bar in electron microscopy of biomolecules. And while biomolecular structural studies can help us to understand the complexities of biological function, it is becoming apparent that molecular interactions over long timescales also play an important role.

Spectroscopic methods have been instrumental in these advances, often supported by simulation and molecular dynamics to help direct experiments or to understanding the results. But biology is complex, and biophysics remains a vibrant field of research as its tools and techniques are applied to ever more complicated systems.

• Anthony Watts is professor of biochemistry at the University of Oxford and vice-principal, St Hugh's College, Oxford. He is chair of the British Biophysical Society, a member of the EBSA executive committee, and has been Managing Editor of the European Biophysics Journal since 2000.

Related stories

• Ed Egelman: talking biophysics
• BPEX: bridging the gaps between disciplines
• New journal focuses on physical oncology
• We should strive to apply physics to the biology itself