Workshop: Frontiers of Multidisciplinary Research: Mathematics, Engineering and Biology

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Engineering Computer Science and Maths


Modern scientific inquiry is increasingly blurring traditional discipline boundaries. This is particularly the case in biology. Two important fields emerging from this trend are systems and synthetic biology. The former aims to achieve a system-level understanding of the molecular basis of physiological processes by utilising an iterative research cycle of theory and experiment, whilst the latter aims to utilise such an understanding to engineer biological systems. Together these fields are making significant scientific, social and economic impacts, ranging from increased knowledge in basic science to novel applications in health and biotechnology.Both systems and synthetic biology have emerged from the increased involvement of mathematicians, physicists and engineers in the addressing of biological questions. Today, both mathematical modelling and computational simulations are heavily used in analysing and predicting the dynamics of biological systems. These studies allow a better understanding of biological data, the generation of new hypotheses and experimental designs, and the development of biological engineering applications. More importantly, these mathematical and computational approaches allow the development of ideas and concepts to explain biological phenomena at a universal level rather than at the level of specific organisms. In other words, they form an important component of research that seeks an understanding of biological rules and principles .On the other side, the engagement of mathematics and engineering in studying biological questions drives the advancement of wide-ranging areas of mathematics, engineering and computer science. Examples of latter advancements include the design and development of robust networks based on studies of biological networks and the development of new computer languages and modelling algorithms inspired by or used for biological system analysis. In the field of mathematics, the challenge of addressing biological problems has led to several developments and applications in the areas of coupled stochastic equations, bifurcation analysis and delayed differential equations.In summary, the analysis of biological systems using a combination of experimental observations, mathematical modelling and numerical simulation presents itself as a cutting-edge research field. For this field to sustain and develop its impact in both theoretical and experimental fields, as explained above, the facilitation of interaction among experimental biologists, mathematicians, physicists and engineers is vital. Current disciplinary boundaries do not facilitate interaction among scientists; scientists from different fields usually occupy different buildings at university campuses, publish in journals specific to their field and attend different scientific meetings. Existing scientific meetings usually fall into two categories; small meetings specialising on a specific scientific question, and large meetings covering a wide field. The former target a specific (and small) group of scientists who are already aware of each others work (and potentially collaborating), while the latter target a diverse group of scientists but usually do not allow specific interactions to develop due to their large size and a crowded presentation programme. What is more desirable is to maintain the diversity of larger meetings while not sacrificing the interaction-friendly structure of small meetings. In particular, an un-crowded presentation program, well-embedded discussion sessions and a carefully selected set of speakers from diverse but connected fields can act as a facilitator of discussion and interaction among scientists from theoretical and experimental domains.

Planned Impact

The proposed research holds high potential for scientific, economic and societal impact. Through the life of this grant and behind, we will seek, generate and act on opportunities and work together with other scientists and organizations to maximise this impact. Scientific Impact Impact on Research Communities The proposed workshop will have significant scientific impact in the mathematics, engineering and biology domains. The most immediate academic beneficiaries will be the attendees of the workshop. In particular, they will be exposed to cutting-edge research at the interface of theory and experiment and form new collaborations, thereby benefiting the larger research community. The workshop will also have a broad impact. First and foremost, it will provide a case study for scientists working in cross-disciplinary fields and wishing to organise similar meetings. In particular, having experienced this workshop, the attendees may organise and encourage similar events in their fields and institutions. Similarly, the workshop will resonate a message to scientists, universities, and funding bodies to facilitate research at the intersection of mathematics, engineering and biology. To increase impact on these fields and the broader research community we will: 1. invite science writers/editors from leading interdisciplinary journals to cover the workshop; 2. disseminate the presentations on the workshop website as recorded media; 3. explore the possibility of publishing some of the discussion from the workshop as a perspective piece in appropriate journals; 4. use the proposed workshop as a case study to help in the development of similar projects. In particular, we will explore opportunities to develop a regular meeting series under the broad heading Frontiers of Multidisciplinary Research . Impact on Higher Education The workshop will have significant impact on higher education. In particular, the workshop will directly target junior faculty and graduate students for registration. Scientists from these specific groups attending the workshop will be exposed to a large array of interdisciplinary research approaches and projects at the workshop. Furthermore, the wide dissemination of presentations from the workshop will allow use of these as educational material (i.e. in graduate courses). This latter impact will directly result from the high-calibre speaker line-up at the workshop, which includes world-leaders from several fields. To increase these points of impact, we will: 1. ask for speaker consent to record and disseminate their presentations; 2. disseminate the presentations on the workshop website as recorded media; 3. minimise registration fees for all attendees (rather than providing a waiver only to a specific group). Economic Impact The proposed workshop will impact the economy of the south west region, as we will be using third parties for hosting of attendees and catering. Societal - Educational Impact As discussed in detail in the Case for Support, the proposed workshop aims to facilitate interaction among mathematicians, physicists, engineers and biologists. As such, it offers a broad scientific content very different to common, topic-specific workshops. This new angle gives the workshop potential to have significant impact on the philosophy of science. In particular, we expect the attendees of this workshop to leave with an urge to think outside of the box set by their own disciplines. Further, it will have an impact on public engagement with science. To maximise this impact we will: 1. explore opportunities with scientists from the ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis) at the University of Exeter to use the workshop as a platform for them to study philosophy of science; 2. compliment the workshop website with informative material and links on the research at the interface of mathematics, engineering and biology.


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O'Malley M (2012) The roles of integration in molecular systems biology in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

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O'Malley MA (2015) A Philosophical Perspective on Evolutionary Systems Biology. in Biological theory

Description In a unique collaboration between philosophers of science and scientists, we have developed approaches to analyze and summarise the practices in science that distinguishes it from other disciplines. Our study concluded that integration of multiple disciplines and sources of information constitutes a key ingredient in scientific endeavor.
Exploitation Route The analyses we have developed are already being taken forward by philosophers of science and science historians, which continue elucidating the role of integration in modern science studies. It is also possible that our work contributes to development of science funding and regulation policies
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Not yet, but we can imagine them being useful to policy makers related to science education, governance, and funding.
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services