29 November 2016

Biology Professor Claire Grierson has worked at boundaries between research fields for over a decade. Was this a good idea? And which are the most important borderlands to explore in the next 30 years?

A misfit can sometimes belong. As a child I was bookish in an East Midlands town where books were feared to “give you ideas above your station”. But living abroad, a joyous, bilingual year in south Germany showed there were foreign places where I could thrive. I am still learning new languages, but these days scientific: mathematics, environmental science, biophysics, computing. What a privilege to work across borders!

For over a decade I have crossed the boundaries between disciplines. It started when I wanted to know how cells grow, and I realised the diagrams with arrows that biologists used (a -> b) were never going to explain how tens of thousands of ‘a’ molecules might produce a specific pattern of ‘b’ molecules. I remember talking to a dear colleague and saying ‘we need new ways of thinking; could weather forecasters help?’. She replied that great things were being done in bacteria, using maths. I had some old mathematical biology research in a drawer, which I dug out to read again. Since then I’ve worked with applied mathematicians to predict patterns of molecules in cells, and how those produce the growth we see. The maths provides a really neat explanation for how cells might grow, but these answers are too difficult to test thoroughly with current lab techniques. This work has had to pause while we wait for better probes and microscopes. So, my first attempt to cross borders was exciting but left us stranded, in unfamiliar territory, without the specialist kit we needed to thrive.

It was enormous fun, though and SO exciting to see what the future answers might be once we have better gear; I was hooked.

I was also lucky. My Head of Department knew some folk from Maths, Computer Science, Engineering and Chemistry were interested in learning about Biology. He encouraged me to help. I met them monthly for lunch and we ran events to attract others. Thanks to great leadership from Chemists and Engineers, we won a multi-million pound grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to train students from science and engineering in the languages of each other’s disciplines, before letting them loose on cross-discipline projects. I ran their teaching in Life Sciences, from ecology and evolution, via veterinary and agriculture, to medicine. The course attracted some amazing students, like computer scientists who wanted to programme and debug living cells like computers. To make the most of these students, we needed to meet other fields half way. We found problems that many fields shared and worked on those. We also built new, multicultural projects.  A large subset of the students wanted to try Synthetic Biology, an emerging field about designing new living things. They took part in the international iGEM synthetic biology competition, doing better each year until in 2010 we came third of over 80 teams, beating Cambridge, Stanford and Harvard. Despite the successes I was once reprimanded as a traitor who’d gone native, ‘benefitting another School more than my own’. This was because our University couldn’t move grant money between departments, so one place got all the credit. This is clearly a hopeless way to run cross-discipline projects, and has wisely been fixed.

I still run synthetic biology projects and PhD training. I work on how to engineer cells predictably, so they do what we want without drifting off course. The community I help to run at Bristol involves 160 staff and students in 6 Departments, with £74M of research grants. But it’s not the only thing I’m interested in.

I want human life on Earth to be sustainable. Ultimately, this will mean harvesting the sun’s energy and using it to meet our needs such as food, fuel, building material, clothes, and medicine. This will involve agriculture and forestry, which, at the moment, are destructive. Twelve football pitches of soil are lost each minute, polluting water supplies and blocking drainage, causing floods. I work with environmental scientists and biophysicists to discover how to change the plants we grow to hold soil together better. I have just planned a project with Geographers and Civil Engineers to stop soil washing off hillsides in Rwanda.

So, what of the next 30 years? There are new borders to cross, to better link science and engineering with the rest of the world. To deliver worthwhile change we will need expert help on Human Behaviour (e.g. Psychology, Social Science), Business, Economics, Ethics, International Relations, and Law. There is SO MUCH to do.

Why stay home? Come travel with us, the views are AMAZING! You’ll see things you never could at home and you might even find new ways to belong.

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