The Nobel Prize and Fuzziness Between Chemistry and Biology

“When you get into University, you learn that Biology is really Chemistry, Chemistry is really Physics, Physics is really Math.”*

Many years ago, a friend sent me a version of that quote among a whole host of other quotes that he’d collected over the years. When I first read it as a chemistry undergraduate, I liked the way it broke down barriers. Because even though I studying chemistry, I secretly wanted to understand how life worked.
But even though biology motivated me, I never took a single undergraduate biology course. That choice haunted me, particularly when I chose to go to graduate school and work in a biochemistry lab. During my first year of graduate school, I struggled understand the nuts and bolts of gene transcription, while still memorizing nucleic acid and amino acid structures. My note to readers out there: If you’re interested in life, you’d be well served to take some biology even if you don’t want to major in it.

But during Nobel Prize season, chemists sometimes get cranky when a biological topic gets the prize, like this year with the award for G-protein coupled receptors to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University. Derek Lowe described the work and his own take on this divide on his blog. “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.

Even the field I studied in graduate school, then known as bioorganic chemistry, has evolved into chemical biology. As I tried to synthesize my understanding of molecules with an understanding of how cells worked, I hated those shape pathway diagrams in cell biology papers. I didn’t want to understand biology in the context of red circles, blue squares, or green triangles– I wanted to know what that meant chemically. When I was in high school, the last formal biology course I took, I frustrated my mother as I tried to learn glycolysis because I couldn’t just memorize the steps, I wanted to learn something about what was actually going on. A nurse, she dug through her old textbooks to find information that might satisfy me. I soon forgot what we found, but it was the foundation for my chemical curiosity about biology.

Science has to move where the questions are, and some of the greatest questions out there come down to the fundamentals of how life came to be and how it works. ¬†From one perspective, you might say that chemistry could (or even has) become a toolkit for biology. But really it’s more than that. Chemistry has to be part of the biological question, and the GPCR discovery helped to make that fundamental connection between the two.

The names of the prizes are part of the problem, but I really hate the walls that some scientists like to put up around their work. Creativity and innovation can be messy, and it often happens at those ¬†fringes of a field rather than within the safety of the center. Drawing lines in the sand provides some organization and context. Categories are useful, and researchers can easily cross them. But organizational lines sometimes grow into concrete barriers, and the minute that scientists have to pull out heavy machinery to scale those walls, we’ve all lost out.

*Some versions of this also include “and Math is really Hard.” The Math=Hard stereotype has always bugged me.

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