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The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine
Board on Physics and Astronomy
Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences



Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences

Released February 2010

Traditionally, the natural sciences have been divided into two branches: the biological sciences and the physical sciences. Today, an increasing number of scientists are addressing problems lying at the intersection of the two. These problems are most often biological in nature, but examining them through the lens of the physical sciences can yield exciting results and opportunities. For example, one area producing effective cross-discipline research opportunities centers on the dynamics of systems. Equilibrium, multistability, and stochastic behavior--concepts familiar to physicists and chemists--are now being used to tackle issues associated with living systems such as adaptation, feedback, and emergent behavior.

Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences discusses how some of the most important scientific and societal challenges can be addressed, at least in part, by collaborative research that lies at the intersection of traditional disciplines, including biology, chemistry, and physics. This book describes how some of the mysteries of the biological world are being addressed using tools and techniques developed in the physical sciences, and identifies five areas of potentially transformative research. Work in these areas would have significant impact in both research and society at large by expanding our understanding of the physical world and by revealing new opportunities for advancing public health, technology, and stewardship of the environment.

This report recommends several ways to accelerate such cross-discipline research. Many of these recommendations are directed toward those administering the faculties and resources of our great research institutions--and the stewards of our research funders, making this book an excellent resource for academic and research institutions, scientists, universities, and federal and private funding agencies.

Committee Members and NRC Staff

Erin K. O’Shea, Co-chair, Harvard University
Peter G. Wolynes, Co-chair, University of California at San Diego
Robert H. Austin, Princeton University
Bonnie L. Bassler, Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Princeton University
Charles R. Cantor, Sequenom, Inc.
William F. Carroll, Jr., Occidental Chemical Corporation
Thomas R. Cech, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Christopher Field, Carnegie Institution of Washington
Graham R. Fleming, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Robert J. Full, University of California at Berkeley
Shirley Ann Jackson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Laura L. Kiessling, University of Wisconsin at Madison
Charles M. Lovett, Jr., Williams College
Dianne K. Newman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Monica Olvera de la Cruz, Northwestern University
Jose N. Onuchic, University of California at San Diego
Gregory A. Petsko, Brandeis University
Astrid Prinz, Emory University
Charles V. Shank, Janelia Farm, HHMI
Boris I. Shraiman, Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics
H. Eugene Stanley, Boston University
George M. Whitesides, Harvard University

NRC Staff

Donald Shapero, Director, Board on Physics and Astronomy
Fran Sharples, Director, Board on Life Sciences
Dorothy Zolandz, Director, Board on Chemical Sciences and Technology
Adam Fagen, Senior Program Officer, BLS
Natalia Melcer, Senior Program Officer, BPA (thru April 2008)
James Lancaster, Program Officer, BPA
Kathryn Hughes, Postdoctoral Fellow, BCST

The committee is pleased to acknowledge support from the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, and Research Coporation.