Frontier Science at the Interface of Physics and Biology

Humanity’s ability to interrogate and manipulate living systems is rapidly growing. Yet, science is far from completely understanding how cells, tissues, and organisms function. In the 1950s, the question of how genetic information is encoded inspired a generation of scientists across disciplines, culminating in the discovery of the DNA double helix. Similar cross-disciplinary efforts are needed to understand biology at all scales, from molecules to ecosystems. 

In 2017, the Human Frontier Science Program Organisation (HFSP) organized an international symposium in Lisbon to explore successful cross-disciplinary research partnerships, such as that of the biologist and Nobel laureate E. Wieschaus and his physicist colleague W. Bialek (Bauer et al., Cell Systems 6:400, 2018). The symposium demonstrated the power of such collaborations but also revealed the tremendous barriers faced by young researchers who wish to work outside traditional disciplinary boundaries. Career pressures and incentives tilted toward short-term results discourage physicists, mathematicians, and computer scientists from entering biology. The life sciences can help address fundamental problems of our time in health, agriculture, and the environment, but only if a flow of ideas and talent across disciplines is maintained.

A new Centre for cross-fertilizing ideas

From the Lisbon Symposium, it emerged that all collaborations begin with exploration and trust-building for developing ideas and, particularly important for young scientists, for learning each other's languages and approaches. Therefore, a new type of institution is needed to provide such an environment, facilitating pathbreaking cross-disciplinary research in the life sciences. The Centre will have two components: incubators and platforms. An incubator generates the intellectual atmosphere to formulate new scientific questions and establish collaborations. A platform provides training experience outside of one’s main discipline, including access to research laboratories. Each year, calls for proposals around topical aspects and without a specific priority area will be published. The Centre will also offer summer and winter schools in these focus areas.

The University of Strasbourg, with its strong policy in support of interdisciplinarity through 15 Interdisciplinary Thematic Institutes, provides an ideal environment for this effort, with access to state-of-the-art equipment and opportunities to interact with world-class scientists in the various research laboratories.

Collaborative research teams

The new Centre will accept applications from interested scientists wishing to undertake collaborative sabbaticals (a tandem sabbatical by two scientists of different disciplines) in Strasbourg. Applications from young scientists are particularly encouraged if they are interested in embarking on an interdisciplinary journey prior to starting their independent research laboratory.
The research sabbatical will allow the selected scientists to contemplate bold, ambitious ideas for shaping their future research. Initial funding to support the sabbatical work will be available through the Centre.

The HFSP Frontier Workshop, in partnership with the University of Strasbourg

As discoveries in physics a century ago came together with engineering to produce an array of astonishing technologies that completely reshaped our world, in the 21st century, basic discoveries in biology will come together with engineering and many other disciplines to create an almost inconceivable array of new technologies, some of which are already entering our lives. Therefore, one could consider the 21st century as the Century of Biology, in which the major technological and social innovations will be centered on converting living systems with technology. For HFSP, the symposium will be part of the new “Frontier Workshop” series to explore this opportunity to engage with leading scientists and decision-makers in science and policy to enhance cross-disciplinary research. For UNISTRA, this will be a brilliant endorsement of its policy of promoting interdisciplinary research and training to pioneer the next frontiers of knowledge in the face of scientific and societal challenges. The launch in 2020 of 15 interdisciplinary thematic institutes, 6 of which positioning biology at the heart of large-scale interface networks, will drive the site's strategic development.

The activities of the new Centre will be launched at an inaugural symposium from 13 to 15 May 2024 in the form of the first HFSP Frontier Workshop. This International Symposium will provide an opportunity for participants from across the world to learn from established scientists with an outstanding record of cross-disciplinary collaborations. Participants will be encouraged to share their own experiences about working across disciplines. The goal of the symposium is to document a set of proven strategies for nucleating and sustaining interdisciplinary collaborations.