• October 24, 2014

Interdisciplinary Research and Your Scientific Career

"The best institutions of the future are those that can reorganize themselves to address scientific and educational questions in an interdisciplinary way. The institutions that will have difficulty are those that keep the same rigid structure that prevents pollination among disciplines."

--Mark C. Rogers, vice chancellor for health affairs, Duke University

For much of the last century the route to success for most scientists involved identifying a subfield within a discipline and then becoming an expert in it. If they picked the right specialty, prestige and money, often in the form of federal grants, usually followed.

For many scientists this approach still works. Discipline-based research continues to provide the core of our knowledge about the universe and has led to many fundamental breakthroughs in science and engineering. Departmental-centered research also provides the structure around which academe is organized and is the established way of assessing faculty research quality and productivity.

Yet, as Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate in physics, noted recently: "Our strength and our weakness is the departmental structure. The department is the guardian of its field. It trains students and promotes intellectual excellence. But the departmental structure means that we must carve up all intellectual pursuits into quasi-well-defined segments."

Today, many of the exciting problems in science are too complex to yield to such a fragmented approach. They require the contributions of scientists from a number of different fields, each bringing their expertise to bear on aspects of the larger, systems-level problem.

Consider the emerging field of "smart," or "intelligent," materials and structures. Here, investigators with backgrounds in chemistry, materials science, biology, mathematics, computers, and engineering cooperate in developing human-made artifacts which, like their creators, sense and respond to their environment by learning, adapting, and repairing themselves.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that strong interdisciplinary programs will succeed only if they build on strong disciplinary programs. The two go hand in hand. Today's scientists need to be both disciplinary and multidisciplinary, to have the breadth to see problems, and the depth to solve them.

Multidisciplinary programs are now under way at dozens of research institutions across the United States. At Stanford University alone there are over 22 interdisciplinary research centers, including the recently established BioX program. This $210-million effort seeks to combine the work of investigators from physics, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine in such areas as tissue engineering; single molecule analysis and molecular structure; cognitive and systems neurosciences; imaging from molecules to humans; and biocomputation.

"We will fundamentally change the way science and technology is done on this campus," predicts Channing Robertson, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford.

Brandeis University has the Rosentiel Basic Medical Sciences Research Center where faculty members from the physics, biology, biochemistry, chemistry, and biophysics departments are all represented. There are yeast geneticists sharing space and equipment with physicists building X-ray area detectors, who in turn rub elbows with cellular immunologists, who in turn use the same facilities as protein and virus X-ray crystallographers, and so on.

Dozens of other universities have similar ventures under way that range in scale from costing a few hundred-thousand dollars to many millions of dollars. With the growth of the Web, many interdisciplinary programs have gone global, making them both cross-cultural as well as cross-disciplinary. In addition, more federal funding agencies as well as private industries are supporting interdisciplinary research.

How then do you, as a young scientist, take advantage of such development without losing the disciplinary expertise still required for success in academia?

The key is to be problem-focused in your research as opposed to focusing on techniques or specialized tools. The latter come and go, and as a researcher, you want to be able to shift your approaches as needed to solve more fundamental problems.

Funding agencies want to see proposals that begin with, "the problem we are trying to solve is ...." To do this you need to look at your specialty and ask how it can contribute to the solution of problems of broad and compelling interest.

Alison Bridger, chairwoman of the meteorology department at San Jose State University, does research on the winds of Mars. It's interesting work, but it becomes even more so when seen as a way of predicting dust storms during future landings by spacecraft on Mars. It becomes truly compelling, however, when it contributes insights about the behavior of all planetary atmospheres, including Earth's.

As a doctoral student working on your dissertation or a postdoctoral researcher conducting your first independent project, your primary focus will be on acquiring depth in your specialty. However, you should also take advantage of the fact that your university, by definition, is a place where research is under way simultaneously in many different fields.

With the permission -- and hopefully the encouragement -- of your adviser, look for ways to make contacts with scientists in fields outside of your particular specialty. The best way to start is via the Internet. Then take some time to simply wander around your campus, poking your head in the buildings, classrooms, offices, and laboratories of other science departments. Time permitting, attend, and even offer to give, seminars in other departments. Most departments are hungry for new and interesting speakers and will welcome an offer from you. It is also a way to begin socializing with colleagues in other fields. Once you start this process it feeds on itself through referrals and can actually become quite enjoyable.

A good example of both of the above strategies is the approach taken by Brian Love, a materials scientist at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Mr. Love's area of expertise is surface science, or as he puts it, "the study of how things stick together." He began applying his specialty to problems in semiconductor packaging, an area of increasing challenge as electronic chips decreased in size while their number of external probes, or contact points, increased.

Later, at a university-wide gathering, Mr. Love met a professor in the dental school. They got to talking, which ultimately led to further discussions and a joint proposal for the improvement of dental-crown adhesion. Through Mr. Love's physical presence in the dental school, he met researchers in the medical school. And he soon joined a medical-school team that is working on implantable prosthetic devices.

How will interdisciplinary research pay off when it comes to tenure? The Rosentiel Center at Brandeis University offers an example that is attracting attention from other institutions.

Every faculty member at Brandeis has an appointment in a regular department, where tenure decisions are made. However, department heads support the affiliation of young faculty members with the Rosentiel Center because it helps defray costs and increases the likelihood that faculty members will succeed. The center, in turn, assesses the performance of faculty members who work in its laboratories and sends its evaluations to departments.

Brandeis has reached the point where collaborations of an interdisciplinary nature are not only not seen as a problem at tenure time, but are seen as a plus. The institution regards collaboration and interaction as the right thing to do and consequently seeks out scientists who intend to operate this way.

The key point to take away from all this is to see your future not as disciplinary versus interdisciplinary, but rather as one of disciplinary and interdisciplinary. Maintain your grounding in your subdiscipline while reaching out to applications across disciplinary boundaries. Doing so will not only increase the viability of your research career, it will make it much more interesting.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to Majordomo@lists.stanford.edu

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