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Dear Molly Cule

Dear Molly Cule

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.

“I am a student of Physics. I want to go for research in molecular biology. Please help me to explore this field. What are the options for a guy from physics in biology in research?”

Well, as a physicist with an interest in biology you could certainly do a lot worse than explore your options in the heady realm of biophysics, that’s for sure! The Biophysical Society is ready and willing to assist in such a transition, and this helpful pamphlet (http://www.biophysics.org/Portals/1/PDFs/Career%20Center/Careers%20In%20Biophysics.pdf) is where I would advise you to begin said exploration.

It’s difficult to provide cogent advice without further information about your interests and skills. However, you specify molecular biology as a particular area of interest. As you will learn, the area of molecular biology is big. It’s really big. When the late Douglas Adams wrote, “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is,” he could have been talking about the area of molecular biology. He wasn’t, of course, he was talking about space, but regardlessthe point is that an investigator studying molecular biology can spend an entire career meticulously unraveling the secrets of one single protein, or one single domain of one single protein.

Your motivation for switching fields is an important piece of information missing from your question. To help focus your search, you may want to look into your skillset and determine the topics in physics that you are good at or comfortable with, and envision how those principles could be applied to molecular biology or biophysical problems. There are lots of proteins to study and somebody, somewhere, is probably investigating one meticulously that could benefit from quantitative skill that you can offer building on your (Continued on page 10) physics background. Also, consider whether you would prefer to pursue theoretical/computational studies, hands-on molecular or cellular biophysical experiments, or a mix of both.

An investigator’s interest in molecular biology usually stems from an initial interest in a particular biological function (how T-cells learn; how the cardiac muscle contracts; how tumor cells perform extravasation; how neurotransmitter is released from a synaptic terminal; how DNA methylation affects gene expression; how &c, &c…). In many cases, the biological function is one in which dysfunction is associated with a disease state of some clinical importance. In some cases, the intent is purely to understand the mechanism of the biological function for its own sake, perhaps with a view to learning something from it that might provide utility beyond the realm of biology.

On the face of it, your decision may appear daunting, but once you develop an interest and a plan to learn about biophysical function of an important biological problem the rewards are endless. It all seems absurd on the face of it, until you appreciate that a critical step in advancing human health requires that we understand disease mechanisms at the molecular level. By understanding how the structure of a molecule, be it a polynucleotide or a protein, confers its function, we can learn not only how an error in structure might underpin an error in function (e.g., how a polymorphism gives rise to the symptoms of a particular congenital disorder), but also how to potentially manipulate the molecule of interest in a manner that might provide therapeutic benefit (perhaps by designing a drug to inhibit or\ activate it). Examples include, studying ion channels with a view to developing semi-permeable membranes for water desalination, or studying neural control of muscle mechanics with a view to enhanced engineering of automated machines. Whatever the hook might be, there is usually some bigger picture that lures the investigator into the realm of molecular biology.

So, read the incredibly useful pamphlet on careers in biophysics that is highlighted above, think about your learned strengths and weaknesses throughout your physics education, and identify an aspect of biology that you find particularly interesting. One other thing, which I probably should have mentioned at the beginning: if you want to get into molecular biology, you’ll probably need to dip your toes in some chemistry first. Preferably organic. Hope this helps.

Yours faithfully,
Molly Cule