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I initally reposted this on There & (hopefully) back again, but I thought peeps over here might like to weigh in. For the October Scientiae Carnival, podblack asked bloggers to think about how things have changed or stayed the same in STEM since we started out and what we see for the future. I started out less than 10 years ago. Yet in that time, I've seen considerable dissension and contention about how certain fields are defined. Here's something I posted on the topic last year. With the announcements for the 2010 Nobel Prizes just around the corner, it seems fitting.
By any other name would smell as sweet."
Thus says Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Admittedly, it is possibly one of the most overused quotes of Shakespeare, but in a way (albeit, perhaps a strange and slightly creepy way), it basically sums up my view on the continuing debate of how we define chemistry, biology, and everything in between.
Although this has subject has been a matter of discussion for quite a long time, it has become the center of rather heated debate since the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The row has been highlighted in a number of blogs and journal editorials including this one in ACS Chemical Biology (a hat tip to Brent Stockwell for the tweeted link). Essentially some folks feel that understanding ribosome structure and function is not Chemistry at all, and it's certainly not the first time in recent years that the Chemistry Prize was awarded for elucidation of molecular functions/interactions of cell-derived molecule These folks feel that the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry are being "stolen" by biology. Of course, this is really about ruffled feathers and the debate over what "real chemistry" is.
In my opinion, if you're looking at how atoms and molecules behave, bond, and interact, then it's chemistry--whether it's propylene or a P450. Ergo, biochemistry (or chemical biology or biological chemistry or whatever else you want to call it) is chemistry. For that matter, a lot of toxicology and pharmacology are chemistry. Compartmentalization of core sciences (with reference to research) is becoming increasingly difficult--and that's not necessarily a bad thing. There is a continuous spectrum of work running from chemistry to biology to physics. To impose arbitrary divisions between these disciplines and between subfields of these disciplines implies that science is a static thing. It isn't!
Science is a changing, moving, dynamic entity. Admittedly my "world view" of chemistry has been shaped--and some might argue, skewed--by the environments in which I've studied and trained. My undergraduate study was in a "Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry", and even though my degree says B.S. in Biochemistry, there was a strong emphasis on the core chemistry curriculum. This is probably why I chose to apply to graduate programs in chemistry departments that were strongholds for biochemistry. I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry, but my graduate work focused on protein chemistry and enzyme kinetics. There was honestly little division between chemistry and bio-related studies at PSU. This was perhaps aided by the fact that the medical school campus--home to formal departments of biochemistry and pharmacology--adjoined the arts and sciences campus--home to formal departments of chemistry, physics, and biology. The alliance was further promoted by inter-/multi-disciplinary programs, centers, and institutes for structural biology, biophysics, and chemical biology (to name a few) that brought together investigators from the medical school and A&S. There was no sense of animosity that a chemistry professor was doing "too much" biology or that a pharmacology professor was doing "too much" chemistry. I daresay, most of them would be hard pressed to define where chemistry (or physics) ends and biology begins.
There is a dark side to the integration of biology, chemistry, and physics. Some have developed the attitude that if there is no biological application, then the work is unimportant. Poppycock! What utter nonsense. Much of our understanding of the mechanisms by which enzymes act was originally based on analogies to well-characterized chemical reactions. We must take care not to stray into this form of scientific elitism.
Chemistry, biology, physics... We cannot disregard the foundations for our interdisciplinary work. Nor should we attempt to segregate those branches of study that have successfully integrated these core sciences. Our disciplines have evolved an interdependence and, thus far, have thrived in it. There many exciting discoveries yet to come, which would be impossible in the absence of collaboration and integration.
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This is brilliant. Do you mind if I share this with some incredibly petulant Post-Docs I know? While I don't have contact with them anymore, their constant reminders that they're doing "real chemistry" aimed at Biochem students has stuck and still irks me today. I always found the idea of hard and fast classification of any field ludicrous, and their aspersions always came off as absurdist to me.
JSD, go for it ;) ... though it will likely do no good. I knew a grad student who was acted the same way-would make a few compounds then hand them off to other people to test, yet another student who was making compounds and doing protein chemistry wasn't a "real chemist". The funny thing is many of the early chemical biologists were trained in what these people would consider real chemistry but saw the potential for applying the concepts and methods to biological systems and ended up with successful research programs.
I did my PhD in a department that had the word "human" in the title. My studies used animal and cell culture models only. Prof Blue Hair told me one day that she was planning to have words with my advisor because it wasn't appropriate that I wasn't doing any studies that involved human participants. I told advisor and he laughed so hard he almost fell off his chair.
Cool post @Belle! I am all about interdisciplinary work, you really don't get too far without it.
Umm... Chemistry has Physical, Organic and Inorganic as its main branches. Every branch has a relation with Biology just like all molecules in the cell have link at one place or the other.
No Chemistry, no Biology.No Biology, no chemistry.No Physics, no chemistry.None of them, then no Science at all.
PiT, that's fantastic! Your adviser nearly falling out of his chair with laughter, that is. It's pretty amazing how territorial scientists can become. It's like, what percentage of my work has to fall into category x for you to consider me part of your club? If my name's to be associated with your department, would you rather I do good science in a different system/field or crap science in yours?
Evie, I'm with you on interdisciplinary work... though interdisciplinary is on Carl Zimmer's Index of Banned Word I recall in a conversation someone making the argument that the majority of research these days is inter-/multi-disciplinary, so use of that descriptor is redundant.
Prabodh, yes. What can we say? People are ridiculous sometimes when they're favorite thing doesn't win the prize, Nobel or otherwise.
Glad you reposted this. I've always thought of chemistry as central to all science since ultimately, everything boils down to chemical interactions. However, until I joined my post-doc lab it wasn't clear to me just how overlapping different scientific fields can become. The lab I currently work in began as strictly a biochemistry lab, but now it's much more diverse. The post-docs come from all different areas of science - microbiology, molecular biology, immunology, structural biology and of course, biochemistry.