I am considering applying to Ph.D. programs, and am not sure what direction to take. I'm hoping you all can help me out.
I have a background in both biology (molecular focus) and physics (condensed matter and math, heavy on theory). Several years industry experience working in labs doing molecular biology and genetics research.
My primary interest is in mathematical modeling of biological systems, and taking this knowledge to then engineer function. Essentially, what I view as a combination of biophysics, systems biology, and synthetic biology.
Here is the dilemma. It is important for me, should I pursue a Ph.D., to have a solid foundation and training in fundamental principles in physics and math, because I want to be able to derive new theories, models, and methods when needed. This leads me to think biophysics or applied math is the "right" area to do my Ph.D in. But biophysics is very broad and systems biology is only a small part. It is also removed from applications in bioengineering.
I know computational and systems biology intermingles biophysics, applied math, genetics, computer science, and various other fields. It also seems like the type of research I am interested in is typically done in computational and systems biology groups. But I'd like to know if computational biologists, aside from doing simulations, also commonly do work in deriving new models/theories in biophysics. Or do they generally apply this knowledge to build simulations and understand data sets (i.e. removed from fundamental biophysics research)? I don't want to be a programmer -- I want to be a theorist who uses computational tools (and only programs when it's needed to simulate something) to solve problems that can't be solved analytically.
Is computational and systems biology an appropriate "umbrella term" for what I'd like to do? Or would I be better suited in a physics Ph.D. program, and attempt to bridge that training towards systems biology research?
Also, how difficult is it to change to a related field if the opportunity arises? Can computational biologists, who are also interested in engineering work, build a model of a system and then work with others to help engineer it?
My overall concern is pigeonholing myself into a field that I don't want to spend decades working in. I want to maintain flexibility along the range of biophysics to bioengineering, and work on problems when the need arises. Also, what field do my research interests actually fall under? I find it often depends on the university and specific department, so it's a hard question for me to answer myself....
Thanks in advance for any input.