SC: The annual meeting of the Biophysical Society, held in Baltimore, US, in February 2015, brought together experts in all areas of the biosciences. How would you define biophysics?

EE: The annual meeting, like the Society, covers a broad spectrum of disciplines. It’s not always clear what biophysicists do, particularly as the boundaries are changing all the time, but in my view the best definition is what they are actually working on.

A good example is molecular dynamics simulations, a physics-based tool that has been widely adopted and developed by chemists and biochemists – as recognized by the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. These simulations, which reveal in detail how atoms and molecules interact with each other, are yielding great outcomes in biophysics by speeding up new research and new discoveries. Increasing computational power will continue to accelerate our understanding of complex biological systems; our ability to sequence DNA, for instance, is following the same progression as Moore’s Law for electronic devices.

You started your research career in particle physics, studying for a PhD with Nobel prize-winner Carlo Rubbia. Why did you decide to switch to biophysics?

I worked with a biophysicist during my undergraduate physics honours course, and got the impression that biophysics offered more freedom to explore the topics that might interest me. If I had continued in high-energy physics, I might have been the 151st author on a paper, but I wanted to have the opportunity to shape the research direction of a small team.

How does your physics background help you in your current research field?

My area of expertise is electron cryo-microscopy, which relies on understanding the physics of scattering and image formation. My physics training has provided me with the skills and knowledge to run complex Monte Carlo simulations, to develop analytical formalisms, and to use them to understand experimental results.

Today, more people come to biophysics with a background in cell biology or biochemistry, and then it can be difficult for them to learn numerical techniques. In the US, students in the first year of graduate school receive more training and coursework, and that provides a good opportunity to get them up to speed with computational methods.

What are the challenges for physicists who wish to study biological systems?

One problem for physicists working in this field is that they always seek simplicity in complex biological systems, and sometimes it’s just not there. There’s a legendary text book, called Molecular Biology of the Cell, which was first published in 1983. At the time, everyone thought it would be complicated and difficult for students to understand. But almost everything in that book has been proven to be more complicated than originally described by the authors.

What are the prospects for students who aspire to pursue a research career in biophysics?

Unfortunately, we now have an acute funding issue that’s affecting all biomedical research in the US. Funding through the National Institutes of Health doubled during the 1990s, so universities built new labs and scientists migrated towards the biomedical sciences. That was unsustainable, and since then the funding has declined.

This is now creating problems for students who want to follow a research career. Universities in the US have operated as training grounds for new research scientists, the idea being that graduate students and postdocs progress to become the faculty that train a new generation of scientists. But now there aren’t enough faculty positions for the large numbers of postdocs who come through the system.

Organizations such as the Biophysical Society can play a key role in gaining public support for research funding. That comes down to science education in the classroom, not necessarily to train new scientists but to make people aware of what science does. In the US in particular, most people are ignorant of science, with most adults here refusing to accept that evolution happened.

The Biophysics Society now has 9000 members, with a third outside of the US, and the number continues to grow. What makes it so popular at a time when many other professional societies struggle to maintain membership growth?

The multidisciplinary approach makes it more interesting, plus it’s run in a way that’s both inclusive and democratic. The officers of the society are elected by members, while the Editor-in-Chief of the society’s journal, the Biophysical Journal, is appointed for a fixed five-year term. It means that we don’t have a clique at the head of the society.

At the meeting, too, students and junior researchers have the opportunity to present posters and talks in a series of focused platforms, while the more senior researchers who speak at the headline symposia are ineligible for speaking for the following two years.

How do you see the field developing in the next few years?

Computational techniques will continue to speed up the pace of progress, but experiments are still crucial, particularly in X-ray crystallography and high-resolution microscopy. In fact, the life sciences have really pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with electron microscopy because biological samples scatter electrons only weakly.

One key issue is that some datasets recorded by crystallography and microscopy are not accessible to the broader research community. In crystallography, scientists are required to make their structure factors available when they publish their work, but that now needs to be extended to other experimental techniques. The NIH has launched a new initiative, called Big Data to Knowledge, which offers grants for projects that will make experimental data available to the wider research community. Alongside that, it’s equally important that the data produced in experiments and simulations are entirely reproducible, which means that scientists should make their raw data available to allow wider scrutiny by the community.

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