“…The essence of all biological systems is that they are encoded as molecular descriptions in their genes and since genes are molecules and exert their functions through other molecules, the molecular explanation must constitute the core of understanding biological systems.” [S. Brenner, Phil. Tans. Soc. B (2010) Vol. 365, 207-212]Today virtually all of biological science is based on the structure, function and location of the molecules within the cell or the organism. Complex technologies are required to measure, visualize and localize these molecules. This is chemistry and physics. The human genome project was just a very large covalent structure determination. Studies of brain function utilize imaging based on nuclear physics. Even the detection of contaminated food products, for example, DNA fingerprinting of E. coli in hamburger, uses nucleic acid physical chemistry. Invention of new drugs depends on knowing the structure of key enzymes and receptors as well as understanding their functions. Solving biomolecular structures and exploring function is physics and chemistry. Unfortunately most physicians and molecular biologists depend upon experts in these individual technologies. The scientific leaders in the next generation will be those who understand the fundamental principles of the basic technologies as well as the integration of the biological phenomena. For this group of future leaders, a solid foundation in chemistry, mathematics and physics is an essential core.
These issues are addressed in a similar context by Bruce Alberts, current editor of Science and past president of the National Academy of Sciences (1998-2005) in the February 6, 1998 issue of Cell, the leading journal for reporting new discoveries in molecular and cell biology. He notes:
"...the next generation of molecular biologists [will need] a deep understanding of thermodynamic and kinetic factors,...an ability to use new developments in chemistry and physics...We need a major rethinking of what preparation in mathematics,...physics, and...chemistry is most appropriate for either research biologists or the medical doctors who will be working ten or twenty years from now."
This is echoed by the current president of Princeton University, Shirley Tilghman, in suggesting that the next generation of biologists needs more training in mathematics, physics, and chemistry [Nature 397:3 (1999)]. Founded in 1997 and named for Roy and Diana Vagelos' substantial contribution to the School of Arts and Sciences at Penn, the Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences anticipates this need.