Biology’s Jupitershots

Reintegrating biology begins with thinking BIG.

An engineer, an ecologist and an oceanographer walk into a room. It sounds like the start of a joke only a scientist could love. But, it’s a scenario Marc Frischer found himself in as a participant in one of four Reintegrating Biology Jumpstarts in December. Frischer and his soon-to-be colleagues had come to an Atlanta hotel (along with nearly 100 other academic researchers) with the intention of breaking down silos and shaping the future of research in the biological sciences in the U.S.

“When first presented with the playground questions, a group of strangers, and a pile of Post-it Notes, I was sure the workshop was going to be a colossal waste of time,” says Frisher, who is a professor at the University of Georgia’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. “Two-and-a-half days later, looking at 20 pretty well laid-out vision papers, I was astounded.”

Nicole Buan, Ph.D., had a good idea of what to expect. This wasn’t her first KI-facilitated event. Still, Buan says she appreciated the opportunity the workshop gave her and her colleagues to explore big questions. “We don’t often have deep conversations about what we really think are the most important or pressing questions, where are the gaps in our knowledge,” says Buan, who is an associate professor of Biochemistry at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She was reassured by the fact that her vision lined up with that of others at the event. “It was nice to see I wasn’t alone in seeing a gap or a need.”

For Buan, it was also nice to run into her academic sibling, Paola Mera, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at New Mexico State University. The two had only seen each other once since Buan handed her thesis project over to Mera 14 years ago at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mera says the event was an eye-opener. She especially enjoyed how the playing field was leveled by having first names only on name tags. “I was surprised to find out afterwards that one of my teammates is the head of a department and the other is the director of a large research center.”

Today, Buan is working on two of the sixty teams that came together during the workshop. One is working on how to apply the principles of physics (energy, mass, etc.) to biological systems. The other team is working on how to teach children earlier about how these principles apply to biology. Buan shared these ideas a week later at a conference on bacterial physiology. “There was a lot of enthusiasm for the kind of topics that my Jumpstart group was talking about,” Buan says. Mera is now working with her group on a vision paper about how cities can best be planned in the face of climate change.

Creating the Vision

The Reintegrating Biology workshop series uses KI’s methods of deliberate creativity to identify new research questions that could be addressed by combining approaches and perspectives from different subdisciplines of biology, the key challenges and scientific gaps that must be addressed to answer these questions, and the physical infrastructure and workforce training needed. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a grant to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and KI. (Check out NSF’s Blog Post on the Jumpstarts!)

Jumpstarts bring together interdisciplinary groups of researchers to develop new and innovative ideas for future exploration. These short workshops allow participants to break down a broad topic into actionable challenges and opportunities. The goal is to come up with ideas that go beyond Moonshots — Jupitershots are more like it!

The Jumpstarts included 400 researchers (participants and mentors) from across the country participating in four simultaneous workshops, meeting for two and a half days December 4-6 in Atlanta, Austin, San Diego as well as a virtual event. This event followed two previous virtual ones: two Reintegrating Biology Town Halls that in October attended by more than 550 participants and a pre-conference Micro Lab open to all workshop participants. They were asked to think about what cool science would be enabled by addressing the playground questions and what was stopping them from doing that kind of work now.

The Town Halls were designed to help organizers understand what researchers consider to be the most interesting or compelling questions that might be tackled by integrating disparate sub-disciplines of biology. The big questions that emerged were synthesized into the following “playgrounds”:

  • What is the unexplored potential in biological evolution?
  • How do biological traits and phenotypes scale across life?
  • How do biological entities interact and communicate through life?
  • How do biological species and systems achieve resilience and robustness?
  • How do we predict structure and function in biology?
  • How could we manipulate biological systems to further understand the rules of life?

From these “playgrounds” eventually came specific questions around which teams formed. So far, we’ve received and posted 60 vision papers while others have gone out for publication. These papers layout how reintegrating biology will help answer some big questions. The topics range from accelerating biological understanding for genes of unknown function to sustaining human life beyond earth.

The Fun Continues

The next Reintegrating Biology event will be a virtual Micro Lab January 16, 2020 in which participants can discuss similar themes that emerged from each location and online. They will be working towards creating broader synthesis papers for peer-reviewed publication. Buan says she’s looking forward to seeing these papers in scientific journals and promoting them among her colleagues. “Everyone who took part in these Jumpstarts has a real desire to move biology forward.”