Since before your birth you have interacted with the world via the physical form that is your body; but how much do you really know about it? Do you know how it works? What do your cells actually do? How do organs like your heart and brain function? What stops them from functioning, endangering or even ending your life? Can we prevent them from failing?
My name is Craig Testrow and I’m a Biophysicist; in other words, I solve biological problems by investigating the physics behind them, asking (and occasionally answering) questions like those above. My project is to build a computer model of the uterus, or womb, with the aim of preventing women from giving birth too soon, which can greatly harm their newborn baby.
I’m a physicist by training. At A-level I studied Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Further Maths. I then went on to do a physics degree at Manchester. But what business does a physicist have poking his nose into biology and medicine? Well, ultimately all biological and chemical systems are governed by the laws of physics. Let me give you an example; consider a heart cell. Such cells are the building blocks that make up the heart; if you understand those blocks, you can assemble them and understand the whole organ. This is where the physics comes in: we view the cell as a little electrical circuit.
An imbalance of charged calcium, sodium and potassium ions inside and outside of the cell creates a potential difference, forcing the ions to flow across its membrane in an attempt to balance the charge. This remarkably simple analogy of a cell to a circuit board works really well. We just apply all the familiar laws of circuits, like Ohm’s Law (V=IR) to our cells and find we can replicate the activity we witness in living systems on a computer. It is all the more amazing when you realise how incredibly complex the systems in our body actually are. But these complex systems are entirely dependent on simple, universal physical principles.
But why do we bother writing computer programs? Shouldn’t we spend our time with patients instead of fiddling around with all this code? Well, not if we want to help as many people as possible. Our computer models can perform thousands of simulations, with hundreds of variations in the time it takes to run a single traditional laboratory experiment; not to mention it’s cheaper and doesn’t require you to give up your organs so we can prod them with probes (well, not as often anyway). And on a purely numerical basis, a medical doctor might be able to treat 20 or 30 people a day; if successful, our research could be put into practice worldwide, directly helping thousands of people each day, millions every year.
There is a key point to be made here: people working outside of science and medicine often overlook the role of research in coming up with new knowledge and techniques, which are placed in the hands of doctors who go on to implement them. Cancers are treated on hospital wards, but they’re cured in the lab. That said, our work would be impossible without the efforts of experimental biologists providing us with raw data, and irrelevant without the dedication of medical staff on the front line; like links in a chain, we’re each dependent on the others for support.
Something I’ve learned while studying physics is that the well-trodden path is not necessarily the right one. Whichever subject interests you, be it science, medicine, or any other; take the time to ponder less conventional routes. If you are interested in medicine, consider a career in research; the scientist who cures cancer or eradicates HIV will secure their place in history.
You might like to have a look at the following links if you are curious about physics, biophysics or medical research:
Undergraduate physics courses at Manchester. Includes lots
of useful info, including views of current and previous students:
Postgraduate physics at Manchester, for when one degree just
An introduction to biophysics and its importance as a field
by the Biophysical Society
Want to live forever? Dr. Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge thinks
medical research will soon lead to immortality, by curing age-related diseases through
regenerative biotechnology. Read more about the SENS Research Foundation.