Journal of Experimental Biology is celebrating 100 years of discovery in 2023 and, as part of our reflections, we are inviting Journal Editors to tell us their thoughts about the journal and to look to the future. In this Conversation, Deputy Editor-in-Chief, Sheila Patek, talks about the power of interdisciplinary research and how she would tell her younger self to believe in her lived experience when encountering challenges in her career.
What is your area of scientific expertise and how did that introduce you to Journal of Experimental Biology?
I work in comparative biomechanics and more specifically, I work on mechanisms related to elastic structures, springs, in the realm of sound production and in ultra-fast movements – some of the fastest movements on the planet – looking at how organisms manipulate energy and deform materials to power extremely fast movements. From the start of my training, many of the most influential and important experimental studies were found in JEB, so whenever I needed to learn about an area I would go to the journal because each article takes a deep dive into the experimental work. There's a long history of very high-quality work in the journal. One of the big highlights of my career was getting my first paper into JEB and becoming part of the community. It was about sound production in spiny lobsters. At the time I was a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, after working in Steve Nowicki's lab at Duke University, USA, for my PhD training. We had been working on how elastic structures and interesting surface interactions allow spiny lobsters to produce sound using ‘stick and slip’ friction, where two macroscopically smooth surfaces squeak as they move past each other. This was my first full length experimental work. I'm pretty sure that we FedExed the manuscripts to the Editorial Office because I remember printing them out. We had to include colour versions of the photos, including the scanning electron micrographs; it was quite an event! I remember getting one comment from a reviewer that was legitimate, but difficult for me to hear. Fortunately, the Handling Editor helped me to understand what I needed to do to address the comment by providing very constructive feedback. That required a lot more work from them but enabled me to bring my manuscript up to the level needed for publication in JEB.
What is the secret of JEB's longevity and success?
It's the journal's quality, in the sense of the quality of the research and how the entire study is reported in a single paper. Hand in hand with that, the papers are beautifully edited. The presentation is always incredible. Recently I published a JEB paper with a colleague from engineering and she said that she had never had such an experience of quality editing before in her entire career. It's rare now; JEB is one of the last journals that does really high-quality editing.
It's rare now; JEB is one of the last journals that does really high-quality editing
What do you think are the current big outstanding questions in your field?
The big questions in comparative biomechanics revolve around how the evolutionary history of organisms has manifested in exquisite mechanical systems that are highly integrated and have incredible control of energy moving through the body. In addition, these questions probe how the same structures can be used over and over again, often for different functions and how all of these features let organisms operate in diverse environmental conditions, such as breezes, storms and heat. I think that we're at a really cool juncture in experimental comparative biomechanics. We need to come together as a field, look at our current capabilities and examine how to address these major questions. Recent studies have shown that engineers are doing more biomechanics than biologists, but engineers go into biology for different reasons than biologists and they have different training. The field of comparative biomechanics needs new emphasis on robust experimental approaches and integration of these approaches with holistic examination of how these systems have evolved. Fortunately, there are grants to fund interdisciplinary teams, although they are rare. Once you get the funding you need to set up a common language for interdisciplinary work, that is, define common terms and metrics. Then, biologists and other scientists (including material scientists and physicists) need to work toward a shared experimental framework, to get a comprehensive understanding to test the systems rigorously. A lot of successful interdisciplinary work is about respecting and articulating what different fields bring along.
A lot of successful interdisciplinary work is about respecting and articulating what different fields bring along
What is the next big breakthrough in your field going to be?
We're getting closer to moving into a realm of experimental work where we can test hypotheses about movement in diverse environments and collect measurements in real time with great precision and accuracy in realistic environments. If we have that holistic capability then we will have a much better handle on what is currently happening to life on our planet. For 100 years, most experimental physiologists and biomechanists, have had to study one phenomenon at a time but now we have the computational power to study many things simultaneously, we can finally see ways to appreciate and preserve the planet that we live on.
Now we have the computational power to study many things simultaneously, we can finally see ways to appreciate and preserve the planet
Where do you think the field of comparative biomechanics and physiology will be in 100 years?
A lot depends on what happens now and in the next 50 years. My generation may be the last that has the luxury to be curious about documenting what's here, how it works, setting the stage for future research. In the next century the field of physiology and biomechanics will always be relevant, but how we contextualize that information is going to shift. My hope is that we do get a handle on this extraordinary planet and the biology that surrounds us and that we'll be happily studying the incredibly diverse resolutions and physics-based trade-offs that came through evolutionary history. Research in the future could be extremely pragmatic, with engineering as the dominant force looking to build and replace the crucial ecological and environmental functions currently performed by organisms.
If you could time travel, what piece of future equipment would you like to bring back with you?
I had fun thinking about this. Right now, it's hard to measure very fast motion and currently there's a lot of work in that direction. I would love to be able to see a whole organism with the most precise time and space measurements that you could possibly want. Then, we can address specific questions about where the energy in the system is and how it is flowing, in order to see how these organisms are so beautifully integrated and how energy is being controlled and moving through the body so they can manoeuvre in diverse environments. I am working on a system for that right now, so it might happen in my lifetime, but it would be great if someone could just deliver it to me now.
I would love to be able to see a whole organism with the most precise time and space measurements that you could possibly want
If you have one piece of advice for your younger self, what would it be?
If I could go back, I would tell myself to believe in my lived experience. Thinking about my life in science, I have been told many times that something isn't how I experienced it and it's taken 20 years for me to understand that a woman in science has a fundamentally different lived experience than men in science. If I had trusted myself and believed in my own experience, I would have had a more manageable time by not questioning myself all the time. Women cannot follow traditional career advice that was developed for men in science, because you get pushback if you act like a white guy. I think I would have been able to manage many of the situations I encountered along the way in a more respectful way to myself if I had trusted my own lived experience. In terms of being kind to oneself, you need to understand the challenge. Often, you're treated as if there's something wrong with you if you're having a hard time, so you have to recognise that you are justifiably having a hard time and acknowledge it; that is a kindness to oneself.
It's taken 20 years for me to understand that a woman in science has a fundamentally different lived experience than men in science
How are you supporting the next generation of comparative biomechanists?
I work with people in my lab to provide formal mentorship, validating lived experiences and in my sabbatical this year, I'm trying to finish a book that talks about how you build resilience. If you absolutely love this work, which I do, how do you develop resilience in order to have a good life and not constantly question yourself and beat yourself up? Hopefully I'll have a good scientific legacy, but I hope that my personal legacy will be to help people understand that this career is super hard for women, who have every right to pursue it, but they're going to need different strategies. The question is how do you develop resilience to feel okay and to enjoy a career in science? I hope I can articulate those ideas to help people be strategic, feel strong and be kind to themselves.
If you had to sum up what JEB means to you as an author and a researcher, what would you say?
This was an easy one! To me, JEB represents the power and longevity of outstanding science that outlasts the individual. It is a tangible and permanent thing to make a discovery, to have the data to support it; that is what the journal means for me.
Sheila Patek works in the Biological Sciences Building, Duke University, Box 90338, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
Sheila Patek was interviewed by Kathryn Knight. The interview has been edited and condensed with the interviewee's approval.