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Science at the Interface

ICTP workshop on quantitative biology highlights interdisciplinary approach

28/11/2012 - Trieste

Physicists, biologists, mathematicians, neuroscientists, computer scientists: these are just some of the many fields represented at this week's ICTP Winter School on Quantitative Systems Biology, which runs from 26 November to 7 December 2012.

Quantitative biology is the understanding of biological processes from data and quantitative analysis. Theoretical physics and mathematical methods are playing an increasing role in the study of biological systems by contributing quantitative techniques more familiar to physicists and mathematicians than to biologists.

The aim of the ICTP workshop is to provide scientists with a broad exposure to quantitative problems in the study of living systems. School director Matteo Marsili of ICTP's Condensed Matter Statistical Physics section says, "The frontiers of research are shifting towards interdisciplinary fields such as quantitative biology and we at ICTP should lead this shift for researchers from developing countries."

Experts in the field, including William Bialek, physics professor at Princeton University, USA, and the newest member of ICTP Scientific Council, are lecturing at the school. Bialek, who will be the featured speaker at ICTP's 2013 Salam Lecture Series in January, spoke about photon counting in vision (a topic, he says, that illustrates how biological systems raise interesting physics questions), information flow in biological systems, and collective behaviour.

"It is the business of theoretical physicists to arrive at compelling mathematical descriptions for understanding nature, and most of the 'live' world is not yet tamed by mathematical descriptions," says Bialek. He adds that it is an intellectual challenge to understand nature and the living system in mathematical and quantitative terms for theoretical physicists.

The workshop has attracted 53 participants -most of them young researchers pursuing PhD or postdoctoral studies-from around the world. They will attend lectures on Systems Neuroscience, Biochemical Networks, Population and Evolution Biology, Structural Biology, Epigenetics, and Bioinformatics.

The workshop is one of the first activities to be organized by ICTP's new research area in quantitative biology. Continuing its tradition as a knowledge hub for scientists from developing countries, the Centre aims to involve these scientists in this new and emerging interdisciplinary field, important for the developing world because of its relevance for epidemics, genetic diseases, and cancer.