Nanobiology: ten years of merging disciplines

Almost ten years ago, Delft University of Technology and the Erasmus University Medical Centre launched the world’s first bachelor in Nanobiology, merging the scientific disciplines of biology, physics, and mathematics. A retrospect, and a bit of forecasting, with Claire Wyman, program director, and Vinesh Badloe, one of its first graduates.

Having made her career in biology with the Scanning Force Microscope (also called Atomic Force Microscope) – capable of visualising individual atoms and measuring forces between molecules – Claire Wyman understands like no other that biologists who want to unravel life at the smallest scales are heavily indebted to advances in the technical disciplines. ‘While I used the Scanning Force Microscope to study protein-DNA complexes, engineers were also developing optical and magnetic tweezers allowing us to pull on and feel single biomolecules,’ she says.

Physics developments allowed us to see atoms and to pull on single biomolecules

She subsequently joined Erasmus MC in 1996, continuing to have many collaborative research projects with people in physics departments. ‘We quickly realised that none of us, having been trained in some particular discipline twenty years ago, had all the skills our PhD-students and postdocs needed. We didn’t want our past to be their future and therefore launched an educational program combining the disciplines of physics, math and (mostly molecular) biology.’

A perfect match

In its first year, seventy-five students enrolled in the bachelor Nanobiology, Vinesh Badloe being one of them. ‘My dream had always been to become a doctor,’ he says. ‘Thanks to the numerus clausus, I started in biopharmaceutical sciences before being admitted to a medical study programme. But it was all about the human body. After two years I realised I wanted to combine medical knowledge with math, physics, and some chemistry.

Nanobiology was the perfect match.’ As the bachelor was created from scratch, most of the courses were developed specifically for this program. Wyman: ‘On the Erasmus MC side, it is mostly the fundamental scientists that provide the biomedical education. The physics courses are taught by the Department of Bionanoscience of TU Delft. They will, for example, focus on the mechanics of biomolecules rather than the mechanics of bridges. Math is math, but we have dedicated teachers for our program.’

The bachelor Nanobiology provides a strong fundamental background in physics, math, and biology

Bachelor’s research project

For Badloe, the third-year research project was the highlight of the bachelor. ‘I chose to do my research in the lab, looking into the synchronisation between the two flagella that some algae use as a means of locomotion. These flagella mimic the hair-like extensions of mammals that help carry a fertilised egg through the fallopian tube to the uterus.’ Next to such wet lab work, students can also opt for “dry” computer modelling in, for example, the subfields of image-processing, biophysics, or bioinformatics. These projects show that the bachelor students have not only obtained a strong fundamental background in the various scientific disciplines, but that they also know how to apply it for some serious cross-disciplinary research. Wyman: ‘It is very much fun to watch at graduation as the titles of these projects are put on the screen and everyone’s parents have the proud yet puzzled look of “what did my kid do?”’

High-level quantitative skills

Unlike in the United States, people in the European Union don’t go to university just to obtain a bachelor’s degree. Many graduates move to another master’s programme, such as physics, molecular medicine or something more closely related to a particular elective topic. Wyman: ‘As these are very young people that don’t yet know what they will be doing three years later, we designed the bachelor programme to provide them with high-level quantitative skills that can be applied almost anywhere.’ But the two universities also created a popular Nanobiology master. ‘I am pretty unapologetic about the fact that this master’s programme is designed to train people to be scientists. We expect them to do research, whether in an industrial or an academic setting. Half of them directly go on to do a PhD.’

   I had to make sure that all buffer solutions needed for manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine would be readily available

Johnson and Johnson

That is not what Badloe ended up doing after completing the Nanobiology master. He spent some time applying his analytical and modelling skills to financial analyses, as did three of his fellow students. He then joined the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. In his first role as a Manufacturing Process Specialist, he had to make sure that all buffer solutions needed for manufacturing the COVID-19 vaccine would be readily available. ‘It was very stressful, but I am very proud to have contributed to something so important.’ As of January, he is a plant performance engineer, advising management on what projects to initiate or cancel to optimise plant efficiency and productivity. ‘I am mostly using my soft skills – how to analyse data, how to run a project – rather than all the multidisciplinary knowledge I acquired. For that, I should not be in production but in the research department, like a fellow student of mine.’


Keeping up with new developments

‘It is a difficult and demanding study,’ Badloe says. ‘I would certainly recommend the bachelor (and master) Nanobiology, but only if you are truly interested in merging several disciplines.’ Many are, as from its successful start onward, the bachelor has continued to attract large numbers of students. Over the years, the programme has evolved in small ways. Wyman: ‘A lot of what we teach are fundamental concepts that are not going to change a whole lot. But we use student input to have the curriculum make more sense, to make it more practical. And we do try to match the electives more closely to new developments, offering more specialities for students to move into.’

As nanobiologists, we are perfectly equipped to help shape personalised medicine

A bright future

Perhaps the biggest change is that this year, thanks to extra teaching lab space available at the Department of Bionanoscience, the numerus clausus that has been in effect since 2017 will be increased from 100 to 120 students. That is a good thing as, according to Badloe, nanobiologists will continue to be in high demand. ‘There is a strong push towards personalised medicine, in which the most effective treatment is chosen based on a patient’s or a tumour’s DNA. And, in general, to satisfy our hunger for knowledge we need to study biology at ever smaller scales. As nanobiologists, we are perfectly equipped for these tasks.’

Text: Merel Engelsman (Simplifaai)

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