What science field label do you give yourself?
So, you are at a gathering and someone asks you, “What do you do?” For me, what I answer depends on the audience. My own rule of thumb is to start from super general and go into the subfields if needed. So let’s say I start from layman level. I would say I am a researcher or a scientist. If they are a little more interested, they will ask “Which field?” and there are several options depending on the occasion. I can go for biochemistry, but if I’m afraid that it’s too esoteric, I can go “I am in the medical school.”. And if they continued the discussion along something to do with drugs, I would mostly concur and change the topic. Or go “Not really…” if I want to stay on the topic and they are genuinely interested.
Now, the next level is professional level. To introduce myself to a new person in my (experimental) research group, I would go for computational biology or maybe structural bioinformatics, which are not a mouthful. Probably I would do the same talking to fellow scientists at large. My PhD supervisor has preference for computational biophysics, which I agree is quite precise, but it is a mouthful and usually requires further explanation. I prefer to use this in writing than in conversation, for instance “PhD in computational biophysics” in my CV. (Interestingly, my other PhD supervisor likes to stick to chemistry, while she is too a computational biophysicist.) Of course, when talking to fellow computational biology practitioners, I need to go much more specific. Nowadays, I would say “I did molecular dynamics simulation for my PhD and now do mostly docking.”
Reflecting on all these, I realise that these labels mostly assume the boundaries between physics, chemistry, and biology. And that is fine. But we need to be aware that boundaries are artificial. They are there to make our knowledge of the world catalogued neatly, but it is good to categorise things differently once in a while and gain new perspectives.
This might be especially true with my own research career. I did a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, where there is also a heavy focus on biochemistry. I did my PhD in a school of biological sciences and a medical school and utilised NMR spectroscopy (biophysics) and molecular dynamic simulation (physics, especially statistical mechanics). In my own case, it does not make much sense to distinctly separate physics, chemistry, and biology since I dabbled in all three to some extent. The label that makes the most sense to me nowadays is computational enzyme design which is implicitly and nicely interdisciplinary.
Finally, I have been known to humourously state that I do modelling, and after a pause, “…Not that kind of modelling, I do molecular modelling.”
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