The funnest part of my journey from being a purely synthetic chemist into a chemical biLOLogist has been coming around to the point where I actually start understanding the biLOLogy part of things. I've been thinking about this as I work on writing an R21 proposal on a type of biological system I know practically nothing about. Chemical biLOLogy is fairly loosely defined as it is, that's why my tagline is "nobody knows what it really means."
It essentially means MAKING and using chemical tools that you then apply to biological systems in order to understand their function--rather than the traditional understanding of medicinal chemistry, which is more about making chemical tools you use to try to kill bad cells and/or protect good cells, or biochemistry, which is more about studying the chemical behaviors and properties of biological systems. So really it's just a classification along the gradient between those two things, and they are already just classifications along the gradient between hardcore chemistry (using the molecule as your basic unit of study) and biology (using the organism as your basic unit of study). It's all about FRACTALS, people, fractals whose philosophy of structure just keep repeating in expanding/microscoping versions as we go up or down the magnification of the basic unit.
Defining oneself as a 'chemical biologist' just means that you have to think more about the biological system than whether or not you can kill it. You have to start understanding biological systems organization and connectivities, and see places that you could manipulate them by knowing how their molecules work. Most chemical biologists get started by not really understanding the biology--I know I did. I was able to translate molecular principles into a few baby step biological systems (enzymes, their mechanisms, their products, e.g. biochemistry--they were all molecules so their processes made sense to me) in my head, and eventually get to the point where I could make something to go after an activity that was more mechanistic than the "death" level. The more I read and tried things, and the more systems I started to think about, the better I came to understand this fundamental underlying common thread that: really, if you can find, define and categorize the basic units of a system, any system, and how they interact according to the principles of whatever scale you're looking at (which always comes down to molecular physical properties if you zoom in close enough), YOU CAN UNDERSTAND ANYTHING.
That's where the fearlessness comes from. I know full well I won't get everything about a new idea right away, and I'll have to take the time to apply those translations so I can define and categorize the parts, but I know HOW to learn it. I know I won't remember the jargon, the terminology, and will have trouble calling things the right process and the cool kids might laugh at how I didn't even know what a Tak Mak was (true story). BUT I just don't care, and am not afraid to ask for that kind of information, because I know that when it comes down to it I can figure out how it is really working and see it for all its beauty, and sometimes find parts of it everyone had taken for granted and poke at them until they do something different, interesting and cool.
That's why I love this so much, and it has only been recently that I have felt my own personal evolution occur, from being someone trying to kludge around with basic biology to starting to see the finer details. It is such a good feeling to take a totally new kind of biology, start reading about it, and start seeing how all its parts fit together and get the gist of the workings so you can start going deeper into the particulars all within just a few days of starting to think about it. That's what chemical bilology training should be all about: teaching people to find the systems organization in things, characterize their molecular principles in your head, and think of them as nodes to explore, perturb and manipulate--no matter what degree of complexity the system comes at you with.