Breaking down the borders of science

January 3, 2003

When Oxford University advertised its new interdisciplinary graduate training programme, it received more than 120 applications in two weeks for ten places, with many graduates offering to pay their own fees if they could not get a funded place.

"We only took students with good firsts and extremely good references that indicated they could communicate well," said programme director David Gavanagh. "All the students are funded this year, but in future years we will take fee-paying students in addition."

Oxford's Doctoral Training Centre has been set up with £5.3 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Over five years, the council will fund 50 students from mathematical, engineering and physical sciences backgrounds to undertake a four-year training programme leading to a DPhil qualification. The students will each undertake a doctoral research programme at the points where life and physical sciences meet.

The EPSRC, with some support from the Medical Research Council, will cover the students' fees and living expenses, the cost of the taught component of the students' training and a substantial contribution to the cost of running the centre.

Dr Gavanagh, a mathematician by background who spent 15 years struggling to get funding for projects that applied maths to medical problems, said such funding was crucial if interdisciplinary projects were to flourish.

"I fell between the cracks, between different research councils," he said. "But that is all changing now. Mathematics in medicine, for example, is an increasingly important area, with large-scale multidisciplinary teams being set up."

The level of funding by the council reflects the need for scientists who can communicate effectively across discipline boundaries. "Small changes in the body can have huge influences in many of the body systems, and mathematical models are being developed to unravel these non-linear processes," Dr Gavanagh said.

The first cohort of students has already started on the taught part of the four years - intensive life-sciences courses. Although they will undertake two projects that are similar in scope to a masters-level project, they do not have to specify a research direction until their fifth term.

The research work will be carried out in three interdisciplinary research centres.

The Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Bionanotechnology is a collaborative venture, involving the six Oxford departments of physics, chemistry, biochemistry, engineering science, physiology and materials as well as the universities of Glasgow, York, Cambridge, Nottingham and Southampton and the National Institute for Medical Research.

The centre aims to investigate naturally occurring biomolecular nanosystems and see if they can be reproduced. "A flagella - the little foot that cells use to propel themselves - is an example of a biomolecular nanosystem. The idea is to try to reproduce its actions," Dr Gavanagh said. "One day organic molecules may be able to do the same things that computers do."

The Interdisciplinary Research Centre from Medical Images and Signals to Useful Clinical Information is a collaboration between Oxford, Manchester University, King's College London and University College London. It is developing information technology systems for clinicians and researchers who have access to vast amounts of images and measurements that they need to analyse.

"Take a woman with suspected breast cancer. At the moment, that woman may undergo an X-ray, an ultrasound and perhaps an MRI scan all on the same breast. These instruments reveal different things and computer systems are being developed to enable all the information to be collated and interpreted," Dr Gavanagh said.

Finally, the Oxford Centre for Gene Function is being set up as a multidisciplinary international centre for post-genomic science. It will involve research teams from Oxford's departments of physiology, human anatomy, genetics and statistics and will provide an integrated approach to the study of what genes do and the development of new treatments.

"By the end of the four years, we want to produce well-qualified and articulate scientists who can communicate their physical sciences knowledge and apply it to medicine and biology," Dr Gavanagh said.

Oxford DPhil's first students
Stephen McCauley studied economics and statistics at Harvard University before working as a currency options trader in the US, Hong Kong and Singapore. "But I always knew I would work my way back to academia," he said.

Although his last qualification in the human sciences was a GCSE in biology, he has long been interested in applying maths to science. He did a lot of chemistry at Harvard, but it was the developments in genetics that really excited him.

He did not know what his ultimate research focus would be, but he saw this as one of the benefits of the programme. But he was clear that his work would be based at the Oxford Centre for Gene Function. He took an early interest in applying computer modelling to the mutation rates of the HIV virus.

"The programme will allow me to build up a critical level of knowledge in the areas I am interested in," he said. "The research councils are putting money into the areas that hold out promise for UK industry."

Stuart Reid finished his physics degree at Oxford University in July and found himself in a quandary. "I knew I wanted to do a PhD, but I was worried about specialising too early. This programme is flexible and allows me to explore different options," he said.

As a physicist, he will be based in the Bionanotechnology Centre. "We will be looking at bio systems and learning from them and then applying that knowledge to the development of medical sensors that can interpret data automatically."

He added: "It is rare to be funded for four years like this and a huge bonus."

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