Nature reviews Cell and Molecular Biology has an excellent freely accessible supplement called the systems biology user guide. In it are various sections that talk of the applications and challenges facing systems biology. One of them is an essay on education for systems level biologists titled “Back to the future.”
The essay talks of how the graduate level scientists are hardly trained to appreciate the interdependence of modern research on concepts across physics mathematics and biology. Thus most undergraduate science majors regardless of their ” concentration” don’t really know much of disciplines outside of hwat they focus on . Consequently later at the graduate level, they are quite at a loss working on problems like systems biology which clearly require a firm grasp of concepts across all of these disciplines. The article addresses the question of the time and format to teach these concepts to future scientists and concludes that an undergraduate introductory class in biology is probably the best time to commence such an education. Wingreen and Botstein then relate their experiences in conducting a seminar class at Princeton which was targeted at early graduate students made up of a mix of students with biology, physics and math backgrounds.
The Seminar class used classic papers from early and relatively recent “Biology” that drew on skills across the three fields . Each paper represented a major breakthrough in Biological understanding due to a combination of keen mathematical and physical insights applied to a biological observation.
Interestingly almost all these classical papers came from the 1940s to 1990s, a time that the authors observe ” biologists’ and physical scientists’ educations were less different than they are today”.
The seminar course at Princeton serves as an interesting model to educate future graduate students to prepare them to function and research in the systems world. A lot of the lessons in these early papers are curiously being re-learnt by modern day practitioners of systems biology. I think it will serve anyone wishing to appreciate the systems perspective immensely to re-read some of these classic papers.
I for one being a trained reductionist plant to go and read all of these classic papers and attempt to “re-educate” myself . Hopefully this will help me get a better grasp of the systems approach and develop a more quantitative frame of mind.
refs: Mol 515 at Princeton