Discipline hopping – a gateway to increased creativity or mainstay of the indecisive?

Posted by Dr Jillian Couto on 31 October 2018
Close-up of two rows of text tubes filled with liquid

Curiosity is probably the biggest personality trait that drives a person to become a scientist.  My curiosity for why things in nature look the way they do drove my interest in biology, motivating my undergraduate study in Human Biology and Zoology.

I then undertook a PhD in human molecular genetics, studying how genetic variation contributed to reading, language acquisition and attention processes. These are complex traits that are the result of the relationship between multiple genes and environmental factors and my work left me with a growing interest in what this relationship was. 

An emerging area

During this time, biotechnology was also an emerging area. As an experimentalist using molecular biology techniques at the time, I was exposed to concepts in experimental biotechnology, mainly via DNA manipulation techniques. Some of the enzymes we worked with came from microbes that inhabit exotic locations such as remote hot springs or the frigid waters around Antarctica, providing us with a fascinating look at this world.  

By driving Earth’s biogeochemical cycles, microbes make the planet inhabitable, and, at that time, scientists were discovering more about their biology by employing new DNA sequencing techniques. Given the growing molecular toolbox for manipulating DNA, a very obvious question was being asked in academic circles: could humanity use this as a resource? We already use plants and ocean life for resources, could we add microbes to the bio-resource list?  What about sustainable products and biofuels?

Biotechnology for sustainability was a captivating idea, but very far from my work and skill set in human genetics and was therefore ‘coffee-break’ science. However, a chance meeting with a professor of Civil Engineering at a party changed all that.

Ecology and evolution

When I asked about what his research involved, he surprised me by not talking about bridges or buildings or concrete! Instead, he was interested in ecology and evolution, and went on to tell me about microbial communities in wastewater. He was developing sophisticated mathematical models to assist in designing better microbial communities, thus converting them into controllable biotechnologies to tackle grand research challenges in energy and sustainability.

My background in genetics combined with my interests in genome diversity and biotechnology were unexpectedly complementary. At a later date, I proposed a bioprospecting project and was hired as a postdoctoral scientist, making the hop from human molecular genetics to civil and environmental engineering.

This turned out to be a massive culture shock. I noticed many differences, but the biggest was that while we were all led by curiosity, as a biologist, I was more focused on understanding the natural phenomena I observed, while the engineers were more focused on how these phenomena could be used to solve a particular problem.

The biologist in me was interested in exploring genetic diversity in these microbial communities but to become an engineer, I would need to put this newly discovered genetic diversity to practical use. I believe that it was this shift in perception that nudged me to think about my research in a different way.

Radical redesign

My plan was to study the natural diversity of a particular gene of biotechnological interest to find evolved versions that would encode an enzyme that was more recalcitrant to stress, and therefore, more useful in the proposed device. However, I soon realised my research would need a radical redesign. I couldn’t simply design the perfect biology experiment for the perfect enzyme, I had to consider what device this enzyme would work in, and critically, where this device would be implemented.

The intended engineering environment is an important component to consider at the start of a project. I suspect this is common knowledge to engineers but as biologists, we need to consider how we frame biology questions when the answers need to solve a real-world problem.

Leap in creativity

Thus, the engineering design consideration made me go back and think again. For this however, I stopped thinking about the immediate molecular microbiology, and instead I dusted-off my geneticist hat. While working on complex human brain processes during my PhD, I had become very aware of the important role environmental exposure played in how our genes get expressed.

When I put my current design problem into this context, a key factor ‘jumped out’: biological systems have evolved over billions of years in response to their environments. Instead of designing biological systems to work perfectly in a pristine lab (the current method being widely employed) I realised it was imperative to know the environment where the biotechnology was to be implemented, and to consider how the biological system would interact and change with this environment.

This leap in creativity was catalysed by my discipline hop, and has led me to start to develop a research program in experimental evolution and genomics, which I think will be critical to designing workable deployment strategies for biotechnologies in engineering environments.

Author

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Dr Jillian Couto
Job title: Research Associate
Section / Team: Infrastructure and Environment
Department: Molecular Environmental Genomic Method
Organisation: University of Glasgow

Dr Jillian Couto is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow, funded by the EPSRC (current: EP/K038885/1; Frontiers in Engineering: “Synthetic Biology Applications to Water Supply and Remediation”. Previously: EP/H019480/1; “The Supergen Biological Fuel Cells Consortium”.)

Her research sits at the interface of biology and engineering, where she draws inspiration from engineering design concepts utilised in civil engineering and combines this with genomics, experimental evolution and synthetic biology to design environmental biotechnologies that will flourish in environmental engineering applications.