Seeing edge effects in tumour histology

Some of the hardest parts of working towards the ideal of a theorist, at least for me, are: (1) making sure that I engage with problems that can be made interesting to the new domain I enter and not just me; (2) engaging with these problems in a way and using tools that can be made compelling and useful to the domain’s existing community, and (3) not being dismissive of and genuinely immersing myself in the background knowledge and achievements of the domain, at least around the problems I am engaging with. Ignoring these three points, especially the first, is one of the easiest ways to succumb to interdisciplinitis; a disease that catches me at times. For example, in one of the few references to TheEGG in the traditional academic literature, Karel Mulder writes on the danger of ignoring the second and third points:

Sometimes scientists are offering a helping hand to another discipline, which is all but a sign of compassion and charity… It is an expression of disdain for the poor colleagues that can use some superior brains.

The footnote that highlights an example of such “disciplinary arrogance/pride” is a choice quote from the introduction of my post on what theoretical computer science can offer biology. Mulder exposes my natural tendency toward a condescension. Thus, to be a competent theorist, I need to actively work on inoculating myself against interdisciplinitis.

One of the best ways I know to learn humility is to work with great people from different backgrounds. In the domain of oncology, I found two such collaborators in Jacob Scott and David Basanta. Recently we updated our paper on edge effects in game theoretic dynamics of spatially structured tumours (Kaznatcheev et al., 2015); as always that link leads to the arXiv preprint, but this time — in a first for me — we have also posted the paper to the bioRxiv[1]. I’ve already blogged about the Basanta et al. (2008) work that inspired this and our new technical contribution[2], including the alternative interpretation of the transform of Ohtsuki & Nowak (2006) that we used along the way. So today I want to discuss some of the clinical and biological content of our paper; much of it was greatly expanded upon in this version of the paper. In the process, I want to reflect on the theorist’s challenge learning the language and customs of a newly entered domain.

Read more of this post