Understanding what others mean: Prof. Rudolf Merkel from the Institute of Complex Systems (ICS-7) unites various disciplines.
Scientists sometimes use the same words but mean different things. Prof. Rudolf Merkel often has to translate between biologists, mathematicians, and medical scientists. But for him, it’s not just about vocabulary, it’s also about mutual understanding.
Language has many pitfalls – and this also applies to scientific language: when physicists talk about a substrate, they usually refer to a solid base on which something grows. Biologists use the same word to describe a material that is changed by an enzyme. Or take the word “function”, for example: certain parts of a molecule, called functional groups, will come to a chemist’s mind, whereas a biologist will think of the concrete functions that a cell has. For mathematicians, a function is a relation where every element in a set is assigned exactly one element from a different set of elements.
Image above: Understanding what others mean: Prof. Rudolf Merkel from the Institute of Complex Systems (ICS-7) unites various disciplines.
“Communication between mathematicians, biologists, medical scientists, chemists, and physicists is unbelievably complicated. We use the same words and mean different things,” confirms biophysicist Rudolf Merkel from Jülich’s Institute of Complex Systems (ICS-7). At a time in which interdisciplinarity is gaining importance and scientists from all disciplines are solving global problems together, collaboration sometimes seems to break down over vocabulary.
Merkel, an expert in cellular biomechanics, knows what he’s talking about: “I’m 55 now and have spent innumerable days in laboratories where at least physicists and biologists worked together on tasks. It wasn’t always easy.” Drawing on his great experience in the various disciplines, he often acts as a translator these days – in lectures, seminars, and workshops. “I start out by simply translating the words,” he adds laughing. The next step is much more difficult: uniting the different scientific approaches. Each one considers a problem from a different standpoint, has “its own grammar behind the terminology, as it were”. For example, the trend in biology is increasingly towards understanding details: improved investigation methods help the researchers to decode increasingly small structures and complex correlations in the smallest spaces.
The trend is heading in the opposite direction in mathematics: “Mathematicians ask for the most general possible relation, the most abstract scenario, with which they can describe something,” says Merkel. Physicists are somewhere in between. Thus, everyone has a slightly different perspective. On top of this, everyone thinks their own issue is the most interesting. “An appreciation of other perspectives sometimes falls by the wayside, despite the discussion of the various perspectives itself being the real gift, in our case the balance between detail and principle,” says Merkel.
Against this backdrop, it is the Jülich scientist’s heartfelt wish to ensure that scientists understand each others’ perspectives in order to generate added value for the respective research topic. A six-month research programme for biologists and mathematicians from all over Europe, initiated by Merkel in collaboration with scientists from RWTH Aachen University and the University of Sussex in the UK, has shown that this works wonderfully well. “The aim was to create a unique forum where links could be created between the ‘wet’ sciences, i.e. biology, medicine, and biophysics, and the theoretical or ‘dry’ sciences that include applied mathematics, theoretical physics, and statistics,” says Merkel.
The common object of investigation was the cell. The researchers went about this from a perspective that was rather alien to them, however: biologists learned how the physics, morphology, motion, and pattern formation of cells can be described mathematically. Another part of the programme involved mathematicians visiting a biological laboratory for several days during which they used microscopes, pipettes, and centrifuges: “A real adventure! This doesn’t mean that a mathematician suddenly becomes a biologist. That’s not the point. But they do gain an idea of what a biologist can do,” says Merkel. He believes it a useful talent to know how to employ the knowledge of others in order to solve a problem; a talent that scientists can learn during such workshops, without having to spend years in a laboratory.
“We are pursuing the idea of the programme within European training networks and conference series, although the programme itself has come to an end,” adds Merkel. The programme has also resulted in a number of fruitful collaborations – for example with programme participants of a mathematics working group from Trieste, Italy. The group’s researchers are experts in modelling differential equations used to describe flows through porous media. “If you vigorously squeeze a sponge, a large amount of water will come out. If you squeeze it softly, you will need less force and less water will flow. The sponge will deform in different ways, depending on how strongly you squeeze it. The scientists from Trieste are capable of describing these processes in a mathematically exact manner,” explains Merkel.
Such calculations are needed by him and his team in order to understand processes in the human body – more precisely, they are investigating the transport of proteins, hormones, and nutrients in the part of the breast that produces milk. “The breast tissue deforms due to external pressure and the mass transport is accelerated – this is essentially the sponge-squeezing process on a microscopic scale,” says Merkel. The reward for the multinational collaboration will manifest itself shortly in the form of a joint publication outlining their new findings.
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