Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stephen Quake: The Absurdly Artificial Divide Between Pure and Applied Research

Another nice guest post at The Wild Side. He illustrates a key point using an example from his own career:

practical problems can be equally compelling as fundamental ones, and often lead in turn to the discovery of new fundamental science. In particular, there is an intimate connection between the invention of new technology and its application to scientific discovery. My own research has certainly benefited from this interplay. Although I was trained to do pure physics (my doctorate is in theoretical physics) at a certain point I became interested in developing new measurement technology.

I began developing microfluidic chips, which is the technical name for what I like to call small plumbing. Eventually my collaborators and I figured out how to make small chips that had thousands of miniature valves on them — and I realized that we had invented the biological equivalent of the integrated circuit. Instead of a silicon chip with wires and transistors, we built rubber chips with channels and valves. This seemed like a universal tool with which we could automate and expand biology, just as the integrated circuit automated and expanded computation and mathematics.

After a serendipitous meeting with the structural biologist James Berger, I decided to focus on protein crystallization as an application — it seemed like a logical choice and there would be substantial engineering economies of scale that one could achieve. What we eventually stumbled on was in fact a rich playground of very basic problems surrounding the physics of crystallization, some of which continues to occupy me to this day.