Did you know that you can significantly change women’s performance on a challenging math test simply by providing a different explanation of the purpose of the test up front? And the same for Black students? Did you know there are ways to give advice and feedback that are demonstrated to improve performance in groups that suffer from (unconscious but inevitable) internalization of stereotypes? I learned these facts just a few weeks ago and find them astonishing. How can these crazy but simple things be true, and more importantly, why don’t most of us – professional scientists – know about them?
“Proteins don’t know biology” is one of those things I’m overly fond of saying. Fortunately, it’s true, and it gives quantitative folks a foot in the door of the magical world of biology. And it’s not only proteins that are ignorant of their role in the life of a cell, the same goes for DNA, RNA, lipids, etc. None of these molecules knows anything. They can only follow physical laws.
Is this just a physicist’s arrogance along the lines of, “Chemistry is just a bunch of special cases, uninteresting consequences of quantum mechanics”? I hope not. To the contrary, you should try to see that cells employ basic physics, but of a different type than what we learned (most of us, anyway) in our physical sciences curricula. This cell biophysics is fascinating, not highly mathematical, and offers a way of understanding numerous phenomena in the cell, which are all ‘special cases’ … but special cases of what?
You’re a quantitative person and you want to learn biology. My friend, you are in a difficult situation. If you really want to learn how biology works in a big-picture sense, as opposed to cutting yourself a very narrow slice of the great biological pie, then you have a challenging road ahead of you. Fortunately, many have walked it before you, and I want to give you some advice based on my own experiences. I should say at the outset that my own learning has focused mostly on the cell-biology part of the pie – not physiology, zoology, ecology, … and so my comments here refer to learning cell biology.
The scary thing is that I have been at this for almost 20 years (very part-time admittedly) and I would never dare to call myself a cell biologist. But I think it’s fair to say that by now I have a decent sense of what I know and what I don’t know. I will never be able to draw out the Krebs cycle, but I have a qualitative sense of its purpose and importance, as well as of general principles of cycles and catalyzed reactions in biochemistry. Not that impressive, I know, but I’m proud of it anyway.