SAN FRANCISCO, June 3 - A systems approach to biology--in which a gaggle of scientists from various disciplines appears as co-authors of a study--seems to be moving beyond jargon and into labs even as it raises the thorny issue of self promotion as career advancement.
But according to Eugene Kolker, computational biology lead at the Institute for Systems Biology, researchers now have a "different systems paradigm." Instead of one leading author on a papers, he said, there are teams.
"There are many authors behind an integrative study," Kolker explained in a recent presentation. "But it is hard to get promotion if you're not the first or leading PI. People would like to, but don't know how. Politics," he said, "gets in the way."
Speaking at Stanford University last week to a packed audience during a Bay Area Bioinformatics discussion group, Kolker pointed to the need for an integration approach to biology even as he highlighted this potential political pitfall.
"We have fantastic scientists in all different fields," Kolker told GenomeWeb following his chat. "[But] the more they work in their field they learn much more about much less." Thus the need for a systems approach, which he sees as approaching a threshold point of institutional legitimacy.
"There is a lot of hype but [also] a lot of initial examples getting started," said Kolker. "In many places, people are starting integrative centers and getting results. And not just in academia."
For example, Kolker cited the US Department of Energy's Genomes to Life program and even a Singapore-based center for systems biology proposed by Eli Lilly. (Officials from Lilly have not yet responded to calls seeking comment.)
Kolker also trumpeted the introduction of a new journal this past winter devoted to the field: OMICS: A Journal of Integrative Biology, of which he is executive editor. (The journal had a former life under the title Microbial and Comparative Genomics).
"The ultimate objective is to apply different tools" to the study of genomics and biology, Kolker said. "People were first focused on one huge event like 'Let's sequence the human genome.' But now [that] we can do it, people are focused on 'What else?'" he said. Those questions are being tackled with the help of an integrative approach, he said.
But how does a scientist involved in a collaborative approach distinguish himself in a long list of authors in a journal paper? For that, systems biology may not hold the answer.
"New things," will come along, said Kolker. "I don't know what. But there will be a solution."