Problems in Pharmacology: Definitions and crossing the Biology/Chemistry Border

I thought a good way to begin this blog was with a series of posts dedicated to defining what exactly pharmacology is, and the inherent difficulties in studying  and practicing it. First of all: definitions!

Chemistry is the study of the composition, properties and behaviour of matter, whilst biology is the study of life and living organisms.Resized

Pharmacology is a boundary science, by which I mean it lies firmly on the border of chemistry and biology, dabbling in both but not really studied by scientists within either of these disciplines. Broadly speaking, pharmacology is the science associated with the study of drug action within a living organism.

And therein lies the problem: in order to truly be a pharmacologist, one must not only understand the structure of a drug, one must also be able to ascertain all interactions with the patient’s cells and biological molecules. This is really, really hard.

As a chemistry student, I have also taken modules in biology. The issue with studying biology as a chemist is that modules designed for chemists differ greatly from those the biologists study – imagine the chemistry student looking through a soundproof viewing window into a biology lecture, unable to hear the words, but being able to see some of the diagrams, and given a description of them by a chemist standing next to them.

It is much the same in biology – having taken modules in the life sciences, chemical subjects are approached as though the subject matter should inherently be treated as alien. Unfortunately, at undergraduate level at least, this is unavoidable.

Students on three or four year courses cannot entirely straddle two departments, where lecture modules later on usually depend on some understanding of several modules taken in earlier years. There is just not enough time to learn every module needed, unless a student decides to specialise in a boundary science at the very onset of their degree. This appears to be a massive commitment, which I personally did not wish to make at the age of 18.

These degrees, such as biochemistry, do not tend to entirely cross the boundary either, they tend to be taught predominantly in one department or the other. Chemistry and biology teaching methods require different learning styles. Having done a variety of these modules myself, I find it awkward to switch between the chemistry style of understanding of process and the biology style of memorising definitions and mechanisms.

As the depth of our understanding in these disciplines increases, such boundaries may only widen. But this is not necessarily a bad thing – it is simply a product of progress, which in science is always good!

Though at undergraduate level it may seem that biology and chemistry are miles apart, upon reaching research level this is not so. More and more research groups contain both biologist and chemist specialists, who may benefit from each other’s knowledge. Many universities recognise chemical biology modules as an essential part of a chemist’s degree, more in silico (computation) research focuses on interaction of proteins and enzymes, and more of the more specific areas of chemistry are opening up to biomedical application.

This is a promising start to widening study of pharmacology and other boundary sciences, but it is not the end. Pharmacology in particular seems to be a specialist science studied mainly in hospitals by clinicians.

Picture1Because the science relies on clinical trials (or in silico research, which I’ll discuss later), it is often overlooked by academic researchers and undergraduates. Although pharmacological research would, ideally, be implemented into the earlier stages of drug design, it is often carried out reactively rather than pre-emptively. I think I’ll leave this discussion for now, though: pharmacology in drug design could fill an entire post by itself!

I feel that a solution to undergraduates being underexposed to the more specific areas of chemistry and biology would be to have lecture series for active researchers just to discuss their specific disciplines. Of course, this sounds very basic, and it is! Different universities tend to churn out scientists specialising in the area the university department itself tends to specialise in. Exposing their students to other areas of research could lead to more well-rounded researchers with a greater understanding of the scientific world as a whole.

This post is entirely my own opinion, based on my own experiences – feel free to disagree and share your thoughts in the comments!


A note from the author: As my posts sometimes touch on emotive subjects, comments are disabled after 4 days. This is because, at this stage, I feel that ongoing discussions tend to stagnate.

1 thought on “Problems in Pharmacology: Definitions and crossing the Biology/Chemistry Border”

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