Information and knowledge is interconnected so why should learning and research not also be mixed ?
“Interdisciplinary graduate programmes have been around for decades. But until Bio-X began awarding fellowships in 2004, most programmes did not attempt to integrate the biological and physical sciences, and many served mainly to funnel undecided students toward specific departments.
This year, a white paper co-authored by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge called for a more ambitious fusion of disciplines, seeking to combine technologies and know-how into a powerful model of innovation (P. A. Sharp et al. The Third Revolution: The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering MIT, 2011). That ideal has been embraced by a host of research centres that house researchers from a mixture of fields in shared facilities that promote interaction.
Such institutions include the Clark Center at Stanford, home to the Bio-X programme. The centre’s open-plan building hosts 44 labs spanning the gamut of disciplines, although faculty members housed there retain their departmental appointments. “Think of it like Noah’s ark. The idea was to put two of everything in there, and let them breed and see what happens,” says Carla Shatz, director of Bio-X.
Bozeman says that boundary stretching is most welcome in research fields that have seen a lot of change in recent years, such as biology and engineering. Other fields that might accept an interdisciplinary mindset, such as mathematics, are in relatively low demand by employers. The chances of making practical use of an interdisciplinary degree may be best, says Bozeman, when that research focus evolves into an established field of its own. Booms in synthetic biology, biophysics, nanobiology and systems biology over the past few years suggest that being in the right place at the right time can pay off for a nascent career.
Some universities are trying out hiring initiatives that will benefit unconventional researchers. For example, Michigan Technological University in Houghton has based some of its recruitment decisions over the past five years not on individual departments, but on multidisciplinary research themes. The first of these, sustainability, brought in seven faculty members with nontraditional joint appointments such as social sciences paired with forest resources and environmental science. “They will be the catalysts of increased interactions between the departments,” says Max Seel, the university’s provost and head of the hiring initiative. Other themes include computing innovation, energy and health.”