Megan Engel (Prairies & Merton 2013, 2019 Schmidt Science Fellow) works at the intersection of biology and physics, using techniques developed to underpin artificial intelligence to change the way we understand and model molecules. Here she writes about the importance of thinking beyond individual disciplines, and why science can sometimes feel like dealing with an unhappy toddler.
I am a computational biophysicist interested in how biology evolved to take advantage of the laws of physics. If we can figure out how biological systems can function so effectively in their messy, non-equilibrium environments, we can harness the same principles to build our own tiny nanomachines. These can be constructed from fundamental biological building blocks to perform a whole range of tasks for us, with applications ranging from medicine to alternative energy.
The well-established laws of classical thermodynamics cannot fully describe the non-equilibrium world of living things. I am using the tools of machine learning and computer models of DNA and proteins to break ground in nonequilibrium thermodynamics, an exciting, emerging field.
If all goes well, I hope that within the next five years my colleagues and I will introduce a new paradigm for modelling biological molecules that employs machine learning libraries – in effect redesigning the way we build models for molecules. The impact of this will be far-reaching because people use computer models for everything from drug discovery to designing artificial machines to developing strategies for controlling colonies of bacteria. If we can introduce this new modelling philosophy and see it being taken up in the scientific community I think we will see progress in a number of fields.
I knew machine learning was going to revolutionalise science – not only artificial intelligence, but the mathematical and computational tools developed in service of AI. At the moment, I’m not using AI per se, but rather the framework underlying that technology, which I am repurposing to study physics. It was during my tenure as a Schmidt Science Fellow that I was able to pivot and learn about these tools, which I needed to pursue my research questions.
The Schmidt Science Fellows programme was an incredible professional opportunity for me to take some time and not worry about the papermill – the pressure to constantly produce publications. I was able to reflect deeply on the science I wanted to be doing and how I could acquire the tools to do it. I took up my fellowship at Harvard, where I collaborated with colleagues who also worked at Google and understood the technology I wanted to learn about. It presented the perfect mentorship opportunity for me. Thanks to the Schmidt Science Fellowship, I have now secured a faculty position and the privilege of developing a research programme. I am so excited about the science I am going to get to do.
Important questions transcend disciplinary boundaries. I always felt a bit of a misfit because my interests and approaches bleed across disciplinary lines. A lot of the physicists I interacted with throughout my early training were quite siloed in their thinking, to the point of condescension toward other sciences. They were often not even aware of what people were doing across the hall in their own institution – work that might overlap fruitfully with their own research. A tragedy of missed opportunities!
It’s rare to find scientists whose mindset is truly transdisciplinary; who don’t have hang-ups about what kind of science is “pure” or if something constitutes “real” physics. I don’t think humans of the future are going to care if their fusion generators or cures for cancer were the result of “pure” physics. And they won’t be, because they cannot be. The Schmidt Science Fellows community is a network of people who are sympathetic to this viewpoint – a network I am grateful to have access to going forward. And this network recognizes that not only do disparate disciplines need to converge to solve so-called ‘wicked’ problems; a diverse set of people also need a seat at the table. My selection and tenure as a Schmidt Science Fellow crystallized my belief that atypical perspectives aren’t just ‘tolerable’ in science – they are essential.
When I had my daughter (the morning after I submitted the final corrections to my doctoral thesis), I prepared internally to grieve the loss of my scientific career. I had never been taught or mentored by a female physics professor, let alone one with children, so the path forward in science seemed tenuous at best. It was during my interview with SSF, when one of the interviewers asked about the intersection of my experience as a mother and a scientist, that I realized that there were people out there thinking about radically new ways to do science – cutting across not only disciplinary, but gender, racial, socioeconomic, and experiential boundaries. That was a powerful moment.
And the philosophy of Schmidt Science Fellowships – shared by the Rhodes Trust – is a powerful philosophy: investing in people. In four-dimensional individuals who will struggle and fail, who might not always produce specific outcomes in a specified timeframe. But these communities support who you are as a person. This approach is fairly rare in the academic landscape, which is what makes these communities so special. And it is what enables them to cultivate diversity of thought.
Divergent thinking is so important in any field - diverse experiences affect problem-solving approaches, and diverse approaches can collaboratively reach unprecedented solutions. My own experiences outside the scientific arena inevitably inform my unique approach to science. For example, being a parent is similar to being a scientist in many ways. You have to develop perseverance in the face of failure; your toddler is screaming and you try everything, experiment, fail, fail, fail, and perhaps occasionally succeed. You also have to experiment many, many times in science before you find success. Parenthood has also thrown into sharp relief the finite nature of time. If I’m not interested in something, I don’t pursue it. I focus on science that is salient and feels meaningful to me.
My top advice to young scientists is to reflect deeply about what truly lights you up inside, and to find a sense of intrinsic self-worth rather than worry about external standards and expectations. If you want to change the world, the existing standards and expectations must be dismantled. We cannot measure ourselves by them.
Dr Megan Engel is a Rhodes Scholar, A Schmidt Science Fellow and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Calgary.