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How University of Cambridge’s Centre for Physical Biology will go beyond boundaries to solve problems

Today’s big biological questions are rarely solved through ‘biology’ alone.

Instead, multi-disciplinary approaches are often applied, bringing in a range of skills.

Cambridge Centre for Physical Biology - Launch Event, Old Divinity School, St John's College, from left Ben Simons, Margarida Rodrigues, Pietro Cicuta, Viola Introini, Ewa Paluch, Berta Verd and Martin Howard. Picture: Keith Heppell. (27225314)
Cambridge Centre for Physical Biology - Launch Event, Old Divinity School, St John's College, from left Ben Simons, Margarida Rodrigues, Pietro Cicuta, Viola Introini, Ewa Paluch, Berta Verd and Martin Howard. Picture: Keith Heppell. (27225314)

A Cambridge Centre for Physical Biology has been established at the University of Cambridge to foster the relationships between those working in different fields.

Speaking to the Cambridge Independent at last Monday’s launch event, held at the Old Divinity School at St John’s College, the centre’s chairman Prof Ewa Paluch says: “The centre is planning to support and help generate new interactions at the interface of biology with the quantitative sciences around it – such as physics, engineering, mathematics and computer science.

“There are research initiatives we plan to interact with that cover parts of this, but this does not typically fall within a department – it falls in gaps between them.”

A virtual centre, funded by an academic seed fund from the university, it aims to connect people across different departments.

“We are still setting it up, but the idea is to organise activities – the simplest ones are around networking. We believe informal interactions, especially between students and post-docs are the best way to generate new interdisciplinary projects,” says Prof Paluch, who secured the funding with Prof Ben Simons and Prof Pietro Cicuta.

“We will arrange symposiums like the one we held today but also seminars and networking. We ideally want to provide some funding to support new collaborations. We will have pump priming funds to generate preliminary data for grant applications.

“We want to be community-driven, which means we will have calls – for example, one-day workshops that people can propose and we will help fund them.

“We are pretty convinced, especially after a full house today, that there is a very strong critical mass of people interested in this in Cambridge.”

The centre will help to tackle questions across all areas of biology, she added.

“It covers all the fields explored in the School of Biological Sciences.

“In Cambridge, almost every department does some inter-disciplinary work. We are hoping to expand this,” says Prof Paluch.

There is also a recognition that students are typically trained primarily in one discipline.

“We are collectively saying there is a need for higher exposure at the undergraduate level to interdisciplinarity, because it is quite essential to research but it is not necessarily taught this way because it is difficult to accommodate within typical departmental boundaries,” she pointed out.

Genomics generates huge quantity of data (27773982)
Genomics generates huge quantity of data (27773982)

Trinity College fellow Prof Paluch – a professor of anatomy within the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience – is well-placed to comment.

“My background was initially physics, then I transitioned into biophysics and biology progressively,” she explains.

“I work on morphogenesis – shape in biology and how cells and tissues control their shape. That is fundamentally biophysical because shape is about forces.”

The multi-disciplinary approach is certainly in evidence at some of Cambridge’s leading laboratories.

At the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, for example, director Greg Hannon has brought in an extraordinary team of chemists, biologists, mathematicians, astronomers and virtual reality (VR) experts to help him create the world’s first VR tumour.

“Any biological object lives in a physical world and has to be subjected to the laws of physics,” points out Prof Paluch. “Then you need to consider imaging and modelling and there is a huge input into genetics of bio-computational approaches.

“These are typical questions that you cannot answer if you only tackle the project from one discipline.

“One thing we want to create is a database of technologies and approaches that people can search so they can find out, for example, who in Cambridge is doing modelling of chromatin, or image analysis of super resolution data. That may be a longer-term project.”

The approach raises the question of whether today’s biology students need a skill-set that stretches well beyond traditional subject matter.

“Not every student working at the interface of biology with something else needs to be trained in that, but it will be good if they have a real exposure,” says Prof Paluch.

“For people who want to go deeper, we hope to create short courses like equations for biologists, or genomics for physicists. These would be a couple of days each and we hope to involve post-docs in teaching them and have some visiting academics from other countries who can help with lectures.

“We also want to have workshops for people who want to understand other aspects of quantitative biology better.”

Monday’s launch featured a keynote lecture with Prof Martin Howard, of the John Innes Centre in Norwich on epigenetics.

Prof Cicuta and Dr Margarida Rodrigues outlined the centres activities and, before a poster session to crowd-source ideas, a mini symposium featured talks by Dr Rosana Collepardo-Guevara, of the Department of Physics; Dr Berta Verd, of the Steventon Lab in the Department of Genetics; and Viola Introini of the Cicuta Lab, also in the Department of Physics. A termly half-day symposium is planned.

The Cambridge Centre for Physical Biology will shortly have its own web pages, and can be followed on Twitter @camphysbiol.

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