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Nanobiology, the birth of a Bachelor

  • Claire Wyman

To fundamentally understand how something as complex as the human body works, scientists need to see and feel the molecules we are made of. But to be able to visualise and manipulate these tiny structures, scientists require technologies created by physicists and training in quantitative methods so that they can interpret results. The necessary collaboration works best when scientists grow up understanding the fields of both biology and physics.

This perspective gave birth to the idea at TU Delft and Erasmus MC Rotterdam to set up the integrated Bachelor’s programme in Nanobiology. This programme, which is unique in the world, has been an overwhelming success. So much so, that to assure continued quality of the education offered, an enrolment cap will be applied from next year. Apart from the two fields of biology and physics, Nanobiology also brings together two cities and two academic cultures for a new generation of scientists.

“The idea to set up a degree had already been emerging for a while,” says Dr. Claire Wyman, molecular biologist and scientific director of the Bachelor’s programme in Nanobiology. “As often happens, scientific revolutions take place at the borders of academic fields. Technological advances in tools made by physicists allowed new insights into biology. For example, during the late 1990s, it became possible to hold, feel, visualise and measure the work of single biomolecules. The input of physics, and also of mathematics, enabled the study of biological questions in newly quantifiable ways. Fruitful, fun collaboration has existed in my own research for about two decades, often involving biologists and physicists who felt we lacked sufficient background in each other’s fields of expertise.”

Quicker progress

Wyman’s own molecular biology research revolves around DNA/protein interaction, investigating how DNA repairs take place on a fundamental level. “Proteins repair DNA by assembling into little machines,” explains Wyman. “One straightforward way to understand how machinery works is just to look at it, but we are talking about nano-scale.” She started out using electron microscopy, but the then newly developed technology of Scanning Force Microscopy proved much easier and more versatile for generating pictures of molecules.

As is the case with many innovative strategies, there was also a downside. “For example,” says Wyman, “the analysis for establishing which visible characteristics of the molecule are important is not straightforward. Turning a picture into data requires quantification methods and dedicated software. Making testable predictions of how a process works requires mathematical modelling – far outside the comfort zone of a biologist like me.”

But Wyman was lured out of her comfort zone by a number of opportunities, such as the ability to hold on to a piece of DNA, and feel how molecular machines do their work on it. “For this,” says Wyman, “you need to measure things like length, stiffness and twist of molecules, and relate these to each other based on the underlying physics. It’s not only the DNA that changes during repair. But to do this work, the proteins also have to change shape. So understanding how protein flexibility is controlled and used is another example of where current instrument development promises great progress in understanding vital biological processes.”

General enthusiasm

Most biologists and physicists had been educated in only one of the fields involved, and therefore needed to “learn each other’s language”. Because of this, there was a need for a formal programme to train a new breed of scientists. “At Erasmus MC, there had been a long-simmering desire to set up a programme in fundamental biology alongside the medical curriculum,” explains Wyman. “There had already been a lot of collaboration at TU Delft with the Molecular Biophysics group, led by Cees Dekker. When the Department of Bionanoscience was established, Cees and his staff also had educational goals. They turned to Erasmus MC as a natural partner. There was an eagerness on both sides to give the already existing research collaboration a follow-up in the teaching area.”

A Medical Delta strategy meeting in 2009 was an ideal moment to explore opportunities for strengthening the links between TU Delft and Erasmus MC and to present the idea for this new educational collaboration. Wyman, together with Erasmus MC professor of Cell Biology, Frank Grosveld presented the plan for a joint Bachelor’s programme. “It met with general enthusiasm,” Wyman recalls. “Both Boards of Directors agreed. We got their blessing to submit a formal proposal and application for a new Bachelor’s programme.”

The curriculum we came up with, combining Physics, Biology and Mathematics, is unique in the world Prof.dr. Claire Wyman Erasmus MC & TU Delft

Unprecedented

Getting the green light is one thing, but to have a programme running is another matter altogether. It took Wyman and her colleagues in Rotterdam and Delft two years of hard work to design a curriculum bottom-up and formulate the challenging, practical and effective educational programme they had in mind. She explains: “For example, there is the matter of deciding which subjects should be taught. There’s a lot of interesting, useful and desirable elements that could be included, but these wouldn’t all fit into a three-year curriculum. What knowledge is really essential for this new generation of scientists? We had to find that out. And it was inevitable that some components that were deemed sacrosanct to start with had to be sacrificed in the end.”

In this particular case, “new” meant literally new. “There was – and is – no similar programme at Bachelor’s level anywhere in the world, even though Master’s courses with a similar focus do exist elsewhere. But the combination of Physics, Biology and Mathematics we came up with is unique. And a medical institute teaming up with a university of technology also gives us a unique focus.”

Numerus fixus

In 2012, the Nanobiology Bachelor’s programme was launched. This was an exciting moment for those involved – the culmination of a lot of hard work: designing courses, recruiting teachers, forming committees and administrative units coordinating two universities, achieving governmental approval and accreditation – all within two years. But would there be enough students interested to actually sign up? “Of course, we had done our market research. And our presentations at secondary schools were met with enthusiasm – which isn’t a guarantee of success. Our high-end estimate was that about 60 students would enrol. But what would we do if, say, only ten students applied? Would we go still ahead?”

Luckily, they didn’t have to answer that question. In September 2012, 72 first-year students started on the course in Nanobiology. “This was really rewarding, especially because these students were taking a chance with us on something new. The number of students has grown every year. In 2016, our fifth cohort numbered more than 130 students,” says Wyman. This number poses logistical problems: it surpasses the available laboratory capacity and requires special arrangements to accommodate them all. Because of this, next year the number of students will be limited to one hundred.

In October 2015, the first sixteen students graduated, and in October 2016, 20 more. Most of them are continuing in the Nanobiology Master’s programme. “We’re actually quite happy that a relatively high percentage get accepted in other Master’s programmes – even in programmes as seemingly remote as Artificial Intelligence,” says Wyman. “To me, it’s encouraging that we’ve created a very versatile curriculum.”

Culture

Nanobiology is “a tale of two cities”, mixing the intimate, historical atmosphere of Delft with the more cosmopolitan city culture of Rotterdam. Courses are distributed evenly over the two cities. “Students tell me that feeling at home in both places is something they especially like about the course,” says Wyman. “One day they may be lunching with Quantum Computing students; the next day they may be meeting with medical students.”

Another attractive feature is the mix of subjects covered. Abstract subjects like Mathematics and Physics are applied to Biology, for instance. “Many students enjoy ‘hard science’,”says Wyman, “but don’t want to study, say, Physics on its own, because they find it too abstract. The Nanobiology programme, by contrast, includes various hard-science subjects that enable students to understand fundamental biology in ways they hadn’t considered before,” says Wyman. “This combination of subjects itself is a big plus for many students and probably explains the fifty-fifty balance between the sexes in enrolment.”

Interview by Leendert van de Rent