Mastering the disciplines

A new kind of postgraduate degree enables scientists to study in multiple fields, says Tristan Farrow


Jacks-of-all-trades, masters of some. This reworking of the well-known phrase is tailor-made for a new breed of cross-disciplinary postgraduate student.

Today's scientists face a bewildering array of issues, from nanotechnology, bio- and neuro- informatics, quantum information and climate change to the mountains of raw, unprocessed data thrown up by genome sequencing. And, as disparate as they may seem, these fields share a common thread in that they straddle physics, biology, chemistry and computing.

The UK is a leading player in preparing a new kind of scientist, expert in a particular area but with a high awareness of other fields. Over the last 10 years, the interface between the physical and the life sciences has been attracting a lot of attention, and funding.

Dedicated postgraduate study programmes combining the quantitative and biological sciences have been offered since 2002 at doctoral training centres based at seven UK universities, and supported by, among others, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research and the Medical Research Councils. Annually, each centre takes 10 students on a four-year, linked Master of Research and PhD programme in fields ranging from computational biology to neuro-informatics. The first-year Masters course is designed to bring students from different science backgrounds up to speed in the relevant field.

Many students are attracted to the programmes because they offer them the flexibility to pursue their interests in a number of areas. "I was interested in mathematics and biology. My current research area in theoretical biology represents an ideal combination," says Simon Moon, a third-year postgraduate student on the Complex programme at University College London, which pioneered multidisciplinary postgraduate courses.

"The PhD programme brings focus to a specific task and draws in people from different scientific backgrounds. It enables interaction," says Professor Rob Seymour, a mathematician and one of the founders of Complex. One research project at UCL aims to develop an accurate computational model of the liver. The liver is a highly complex chemical factory, so this mammoth and challenging task requires input from a number of disciplines. The potential benefits are incalculable, but can be illustrated by the enthusiasm with which the US pharmaceutical industry has embraced the model of the human heart developed at Oxford University. It can cut the costs of drug development, and could potentially do away with animal testing.

The University of Edinburgh's Institute for Adaptive and Neural Computation is home to another doctoral training centre. Here, students can choose between three areas: computational modelling of the brain, neuro-engineering and the design of new ways to process the large amounts of data generated by neuroscience research. In the first year, students follow a number of core foundation courses in computer and neuroscience as part of the Master of Research qualification. They are then in a good position to make an informed decision about which area to pursue at doctoral level for the next three years.

Multidisciplinary studies are so broad they can be accused of lacking depth. Dr Mark van Rossum from the Institute in Edinburgh makes no apologies. "Interdisciplinary projects can be very specialised," he says. "The two are not mutually exclusive."

Also, doctoral training centre programmes last four years as opposed to three for normal PhDs. The University of Warwick and the Chemical Biology Consortium (CBC) at Imperial College London are home to centres studying biological problems at the molecular level from a quantitative perspective. Professor David Klug, in charge of the CBC, says that students must master all areas. That is achieved by longer training, and a wider scope for broadening understanding. "We train a new generation for whom interdisciplinarity becomes the norm," he says.

Details about the Life Sciences Interface Doctoral Training Centres can be found at:

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