Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Myth of Specializing in Science

I always thought that as you progressed through learning you were supposed to focus your time on increasingly specific topics that you can specialise in. M y own learning is a good example of this. At GCSE I was learning “Science”; for A level I did Biology, Chemistry and Physics; at undergraduate degree level I studied Medicinal and Biological Chemistry, a specific subset of chemistry. And for my PhD I thought I was specialising in Computational Chemistry.

Which is true, but also a misconception.

I work on molecular dynamics simulations of biomolecules, primarily proteins and DNA. What that means is I’m basically a biophysical chemist as well as a computational one. Those words, biophysical chemist? I’m back where I was with A Level pretty much.

Where I do my research is essentially at the interface of biology, chemistry, physics and computer science. And while doing multidisciplinary work at the interface between the different flavours of science is really quite trendy, what it means for me is I have a hell of a lot of things I need to know.

I need to have a working knowledge of the biology of proteins and DNA. What they do in the body etc. I needed to know how these molecules work on a chemical level. How they form, how the chemical structure affects the biological behaviour. I have to deal with chemical structures and understand things like bond angles, bond lengths and what the consequences of that are. When I carry out my simulations I am applying lots of physics to my model. I need a good idea of the physics I'm using; a knowledge of Newton's laws and the more complicated equations required for the complex structures I'm dealing with. Each step of my simulation is basically a lot of maths, which I need some idea of as well.  And because all of this is happening inside a computer there is yet another area which requires my knowledge. I need a working knowledge of Linux, where all my calculations are carried out. I need to be able to use the suites of programs that carry out the calculations, and know how to use the programs that analyse and compare my results. I need to know a bit about various coding languages to make my job easier.

So you see how I haven't really specialized at all. And that's without getting into the spectroscopy side of my project our the experimental work I may potentially carry out.

I believe that in science there us no such thing as speculating. Everything requires more knowledge and the lines between the different sciences are increasingly becoming blurred. There may once have been a time I could have called myself a chemist, but not so much now. I'm a computational chemist working on classical molecular dynamics simulations of biomolecules.

I think I'll just called myself a scientist.