A biologist in biology

Many times in my research I feel like a know too little – there are always more papers to read, more techniques to learn, more experiments to do, more conferences to go to. However, what has been nagging me for a while now is my non-mathematical background. Which is not to say that I don’t know any maths, or that I don’t like it, but maths in a biology degree gets very little attention. That might be fine for somebody who is going to classify species for a living, but as a neuroscientist is just not good enough. The overarching goal of my field – understanding the brain – most likely requires computational models, or at least thinking about the brain as an organ capable of doing computations. That’s why, at times, I feel out of place; I feel like all these physicists, engineers and mathematicians are better equipped to tackle the research questions I am interested in than I am!

But then I tell myself that I don’t need to do it all by myself – I can find nice computationally minded people to collaborate with. And I remember my Biology degree, and remember too all those wonders I learnt about – and here I pity the numerical people – they might never have heard of this! Did you ever think about the physiologic challenge posed by the giraffe’s long neck (sorry no references here, this is textbook stuff – for biologists, at least): You need very high pressure to pump blood all the way up, but don’t want the brain to burst when it lowers its head to drink! Or did you know that some crabs have gravity sensors that are magnetic, so that if you put a strong magnet above them in a tank, they will swim upside down? And did you realise that the most important protein (ever!) has a ridiculously long name – Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, or Rubisco for short – but is crucial for photosynthesis, and without it plants as we know them wouldn’t exist, nor plant-eaters? And I haven’t even started on evolution…

So, I like being a biologist. I like being able to name the trees I cycle by, or the fact that I work in a ‘wet’ lab. However, I also jump at every opportunity to learn a more quantitative and computational mindset, hoping that it will not only make me a better biologist, but will allow me to do better science too.

One thought on “A biologist in biology

  1. What I remember from my very first lecture at ETH is the feeling of being entirely out of my depth – and I dare say that Biology has been a sink or swim experience for me ever since. A good one though: all these wonders to discover, riddles to solve and puzzles to be puzzled about! I think that this is what gets us scientists (in the making, in my case) hooked. Even though I am the first to complain about the stress, uncertainity and failed experiments at work, I couldn’t do without. (I tried. Twice!) After all, science seems to be the one thing entertaining my curiousity and love for learning long enough to keep me from getting bored and restless. Let’s hope the next three years won’t prove that wrong 😉

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