Repost: What’s in a name?

For the October Scientiae Carnival, podblack asked bloggers to think about how things have changed or stayed the same in STEM since we started out and what we see for the future. I started out less than 10 years ago. Yet in that time, I’ve seen considerable dissension and contention about how certain fields are defined. Here’s something I posted on the topic last year. With the Nobel Prize announcements just around the corner, it seems even more appropriate.


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Thus says Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Admittedly, it is possibly one of the most overused quotes of Shakespeare, but in a way (albeit, perhaps a strange and slightly creepy way), it basically sums up my view on the continuing debate of how we define chemistry, biology, and everything in between.

Although this has subject has been a matter of discussion for quite a long time, it has become the center of rather heated debate since the announcement of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The row has been highlighted in a number of blogs and journal editorials including this one in ACS Chemical Biology (a hat tip to Brent Stockwell for the tweeted link). Essentially some folks feel that understanding ribosome structure and function is not Chemistry at all, and it’s certainly not the first time in recent years that the Chemistry Prize was awarded for elucidation of molecular functions/interactions of cell-derived molecule These folks feel that the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry are being “stolen” by biology. Of course, this is really about ruffled feathers and the debate over what “real chemistry” is.

In my opinion, if you’re looking at how atoms and molecules behave, bond, and interact, then it’s chemistry–whether it’s propylene or a P450. Ergo, biochemistry (or chemical biology or biological chemistry or whatever else you want to call it) is chemistry. For that matter, a lot of toxicology and pharmacology are chemistry. Compartmentalization of core sciences (with reference to research) is becoming increasingly difficult–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a continuous spectrum of work running from chemistry to biology to physics. To impose arbitrary divisions between these disciplines and between subfields of these disciplines implies that science is a static thing. It isn’t!

Science is a changing, moving, dynamic entity. Admittedly my “world view” of chemistry has been shaped–and some might argue, skewed–by the environments in which I’ve studied and trained. My undergraduate study was in a “Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry”, and even though my degree says B.S. in Biochemistry, there was a strong emphasis on the core chemistry curriculum. This is probably why I chose to apply to graduate programs in chemistry departments that were strongholds for biochemistry. I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry, but my graduate work focused on protein chemistry and enzyme kinetics. There was honestly little division between chemistry and bio-related studies at PSU. This was perhaps aided by the fact that the medical school campus–home to formal departments of biochemistry and pharmacology–adjoined the arts and sciences campus–home to formal departments of chemistry, physics, and biology. The alliance was further promoted by inter-/multi-disciplinary programs, centers, and institutes for structural biology, biophysics, and chemical biology (to name a few) that brought together investigators from the medical school and A&S. There was no sense of animosity that a chemistry professor was doing “too much” biology or that a pharmacology professor was doing “too much” chemistry. I daresay, most of them would be hard pressed to define where chemistry (or physics) ends and biology begins.

There is a dark side to the integration of biology, chemistry, and physics. Some have developed the attitude that if there is no biological application, then the work is unimportant. Poppycock! That is utter nonsense. Much of our understanding of the mechanisms by which enzymes act was originally based on analogies to well-characterized chemical reactions. We must take care not to stray into this form of scientific elitism.

Chemistry, biology, physics… We cannot disregard the foundations for our interdisciplinary work. Nor should we attempt to segregate those branches of study that have successfully integrated these core sciences. Our disciplines have evolved an interdependence and, thus far, have thrived in it. There many exciting discoveries yet to come, which would be impossible in the absence of collaboration and integration.

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One Response to Repost: What’s in a name?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Repost: What’s in a name? | There and (hopefully) back again --

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