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A new beginning and a word on the title

2 October 2014

Finally! I took me only 3 months since I’ve started here to begin writing this blog, a task (not really a task, more fun, maybe a venture?) that I wanted to do for quite a while now, but which got pushed back by a whirlwind of other things. Has it really already been three months? Anyway, this is it. The beginning. So, a couple words on myself before I try to explain the pretentious title.

As I just mentioned, I took my position as a research fellow here at Cardiff University just three months ago (or already, depending on your viewpoint). I am very thrilled to be here, since my new home away from home (read: workplace) is perfectly located to cater to my two main interests: neuroscience and cancer. At the intersection of these two fields you will find anyone who studies the biology of brain tumours. My own, very specific, interests involve the functions of a specific type of brain cell called astrocyte, a family of proteins that are known as epithelial-mesenchymal-transition-associated transcription factors (quite a mouthful, but then have you tried spelling my name?) or EMT-TFs for short (which makes the name more manageable, but not necessarily any more clear), and a number of properties that come with malignancy in cancer, such as invasion (the ability of cancer cells to move into healthy tissue), therapy resistance, and stemness (being in a developmentally primitive state, but in the context of cancer typically the ability to start tumour growth).

This is already a lot more than I wanted to talk about in my first post, and I promise I will revisit all of these topics to give each of them the attention they deserve and hopefully to add some clarity to this mess that seems to be getting out of hand rather quickly.

But I promised a word on the title (Sherlock fans may already have got the allusion). Reductionism is the philosophical idea that “a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts” (shamelessly copied quoted from Wikipedia), with the implication that information about a complex system, such as an organ, can be inferred from studying its parts (in this case, e.g. cells). This is partially true, as long as one keeps the limitations of reductionist approaches in mind (i.e. nerve cells form networks and these networks really are the foundation of the functions of the brain, so anything we learn from studying individual nerve cells will take us only so far if we are trying to understand consciousness, for example, but on the other hand we can learn a huge number of very relevant and true facts from this approach, such as that nerve cells communicate via electrical impulses that are travelling down a special structure called axon to another special structure called synapse and so forth). Scientists like reductionist approaches, because they make studying an otherwise very difficult system much more manageable. The incredible complexities of the brain get reduced to the still mind-boggling, but more comprehensive, intricacies of a single nerve cell (to stick with our example). The simplified version of reality is usually called a model (and this can be anything from an equation to a mixture of molecules in a test tube, to a cell, to a whole organism).

However, reductionism is a two-edged sword, with the looming danger of over-simplification to a point where the model has become so removed from reality that we cannot gain any practical information anymore (will individual pixels, maximally zoomed in, on this screen reveal anything useful about the text that is written here?). So, why “The science of reduction”? I guess my point is that we cannot do without models in science, but they need to be balanced between practicality and information output. I will revisit this topic later, as it is of incredible relevance to everything we do, on a philosophical level.

I think this is enough for a first post, I’m already risking overstaying my welcome. All that is left for now is hoping that I made some sense and that we will meet again.