Biophysicists are, I think, expected to have broad-ranging interests and skills. When I was interviewing for faculty positions, for example, I was asked in all seriousness,
“When I cook a chicken in a pot and it makes a squishy sort of jelly, what is that?”
Despite being vegetarian and never having experienced chickens-in-pots, I babbled something about gels of extracellular matrix proteins (like collagen), and I got a job offer*. Now, I’m quite happy that my lab studies things as diverse as vesicle trafficking proteins (the subject of this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine), interactions between microbes and animals, and image processing algorithms. Still, even I have my limits, which I’m periodically reminded of when I get emails from “NineSigma,” a group that poses technical challenges that particular industries are looking for solutions to. (I vaguely remember signing up for this many years ago.) Three recent ones:
“Non-Conventional Water Conveyance: NineSigma, representing a leading manufacturer of consumer products in the lawn and garden industry, invites proposals for designs of a novel product to convey water from a fixed point (typically a hose bib on a house) to a nozzle … The client is interested in non-conventional designs or methods of conveying water that are not readily available in the garden hose market.” I.e. one should invent a hose that is not a hose (as illustrated).
“Injectable Elastic Material: … representing a multi-billion dollar medical device manufacturer, is seeking an injectable material for use in living bodies, which results in a final material that can maintain, change, or acquire a specified range of elasticity after injection.” Imagining likely applications is an exercise for the reader.
“Rapid Thawing of Frozen Meat: … invites proposals for new technologies or approaches to enable the rapid thawing of frozen food products without compromising product appearance, taste, texture or nutrition.”
I’ll readily admit that all these are beyond my areas of expertise!
I was reminded of these today following the most recent in a series of conversations about how, or whether, to push for a new Applied Sciences program here. The University of Oregon does not have an engineering school — all the engineering departments are at Oregon State University, about an hour away. An Applied Science program may offer routes to exciting research areas that are otherwise difficult to envision here, and may offer enticing programs for practically-minded students. Moreover, since boundaries between “pure” and “applied” sciences are increasingly blurry, there may be lots of constructive overlap with UO’s strong “pure” science programs. Ideally, for such overlaps, one would want research questions that have both practical payoff and fundamental importance. One could imagine, for example, the characterization of “injectable elastic materials” involving basic studies of the mechanics of soft tissues — a hot topic at the moment. And maybe unconventional garden hose design could blend with research into the geometry of folding patterns. And thawing frozen meat could… lead maybe to… sorry, I’m stumped by that one. Anyway, supposing such connections existed, would the basic science questions to be asked be sufficiently enticing to industry to fund their investigation? This, I think, is an interesting question.
* Note: correlation does not imply causation.