On your wavelength

Interactions: Bart Hoogenboom

Bart Hoogenboom is a professor of biophysics at University College London.

What did you train in? What are you working on now?

My undergraduate degree was in physics, I did a final-year research project on the electronic properties of buckyballs (C60), and a PhD project on high-Tc superconductors, that is, all solid-state physics. During my PhD, I learnt how to build and use scanning tunnelling microscopes, which came handy when as a postdoc, I developed atomic force microscopy methods to image solid–liquid interfaces at atomic/molecular resolution. At present, my lab still makes extensive use of atomic force microscopy, complemented by other methods, largely to study — often by real-time, nanoscale visualisation — how biological molecules interact with each other and self-organize to collectively carry out tasks that are important for health and disease. Examples of such tasks are the repair of DNA damage (important in various cancer therapies, for instance), the perforation of cellular membranes (such as in bacterial attack and immune defence) and the regulation of transport into and out of the cell nucleus (exploited by viruses and in gene therapies, for example).

How do you introduce yourself (e.g. I am a physicist/biologist/…) ? 

By my training and way of thinking, I am very much a physicist. That said, I try to do interesting science, and in doing so am not too concerned about the question whether that science happens to be more physical or biological.

What motivated you to change your field of research?

For my PhD, I was working on intellectually challenging questions regarding local electronic excitations in superconductors, which was great fun. However, to keep me motivated and interested on the longer term, I felt that I would benefit from broadening my research horizons and learning about other fields of science. Biology has the advantage of such broadness, with a nigh-infinite collection of questions and problems and ample scope for physicists to make meaningful contributions.

What did you find most difficult when you first had contact with other disciplines? 

I find biologists on average more conservative than physicists. In my experience, physicists tend to be more open to new concepts and methods, even if their immediate use or validity in a practical context is unclear. By contrast, most biologists know that many concepts may apply in nature and many methods may a priori be helpful; however, the hard work is often not in defining a new concept or new method, but in determining which ones (out of many) are useful for the particular biological problem that they are working on.

And what did you find most helpful to familiarize yourself with new concepts and jargon?

To start with, I worked my way through a cell biology textbook. That took quite some patience, but in the end I could read relevant scientific literature and talk to biologists without feeling excessively ignorant. Next, in such discussions across disciplinary boundaries, it helps to be honest about gaps in one’s knowledge. I must have asked many, many naïve questions (and still do), and I count myself fortunate with many fantastic collaborators willing to answer such questions and even do research projects with me.

Tell us about your experience the first time you went to a conference outside the field you trained in.

I felt rather lost and was wondering what on earth I was doing there.

What would be your advice to a PI leading an interdisciplinary group?

A good interdisciplinary research team is a treasure chest that contains much more knowledge and skills than a PI can have on his/her own, and this can be further enhanced by collaborations with labs that have complementary expertise. For a PI leading such a group, my main advice is to appreciate and make best use of such knowledge and skills, encouraging the team to help each other and show a similar open, communicative and collaborative approach when interacting with other labs.

Is there any anecdote you would like to share?

Interdisciplinary communication can sometimes get a bit lost by lack of proper translation. Some years ago, I had done preliminary experiments to visualise the assembly of immune proteins that punch holes in target cell membranes. My postdoc at that time struggled to replicate my results in a room where the heating – not for the first time on our building – was failing. When he next reported to our biological collaborators how he had solved the problem, ‘I put the sample on a hot-plate’, our collaborators went through the roof. To alleviate their major concerns over what we had done to the delicate proteins, it sufficed to give them the appropriate biological translation of my postdoc’s remark, ‘He incubated the sample at 37oC.’


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