In 2001, plant biologist Kenneth Piller left a research position with agricultural biotech company Monsanto to follow his wife to Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he took a job teaching plant biology as an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina. Down the hall from Piller's office was immunologist Kenneth Bost, who was trying to produce a viral protein in wheat to use as a vaccine. Piller recognized in Bost's project a way to get back into research, and Bost saw in Piller’s expertise a way to fill in the gaps in his own knowledge. "I knew I didn’t have the expertise to move forward," Bost says. The pair soon realized they were onto something big: In 2005, Bost and Piller founded a biotechnology research company called SoyMeds focused on developing soy-based vaccines and other therapies. If they succeed, medicines may one day be delivered via a swig of soy milk.

While not new, cross-disciplinary collaborations—wherein scientists from different disciplines work together on a common problem—are increasing in frequency, says National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Strategic Coordination Director Elizabeth Wilder. And science policymakers, she adds, are touting their abilities to solve big problems in society. But while such partnerships can offer scientists rewarding opportunities or access to nontraditional funding streams, there are also risks and pitfalls for young scientists to be aware of.

Courtesy of Kenneth Bost and Kenneth Piller
Kenneth Bost (left) and Kenneth Piller

Surmountable challenges

Cross-disciplinary work is not for the risk-averse. "It’s still, in academia, an easier path to be strictly in one discipline or another," says Noelle Selin, an atmospheric chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who studies how interdisciplinary climate change research affects global policy.

Learning a new discipline and its jargon takes extra time and effort—which many departments may wish young scientists devoted to their own field. The initial stages in particular can feel "a little uncomfortable," says Larisa DeSantis, who is a paleoecologist  in the geology department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. While DeSantis primarily studies how mammals have responded to climate change during the past 65 million years, she recently started working with a sedimentologist and an archeologist from Vanderbilt on a project to study early Peruvian civilizations. That project begat even more collaborations with archaeologists. Suddenly, she found herself reading article after article about indigenous cultural customs. "That’s not my normal literature," she says.

Despite being plugged into several different fields, DeSantis says that sometimes she feels a bit academically homeless. Each field has its own culture and conventions, she says, and not specializing has meant that she hasn't been able to fully integrate herself into any one. "Geologists consider me a biologist, and biologists consider me a geologist," she says.

CREDIT: Steven Wallace
Larissa DeSantis takes a breather at Gray Fossil Site in eastern Tennessee, where she works with archaeologists to help excavate dig sites.

It can also be challenging to find the right journal for research that bridges highly divergent disciplines, as most journals focus narrowly within a particular field. And different fields' publishing customs—such as manuscript style and authorship listing—mean that it's often difficult to interpret who gets credit for what. For example, in biological journals, the last author is typically the principal investigator (PI), whereas in geology journals, authors' names are usually organized by how much work they contributed. Following her field's tradition, in a recent article DeSantis published in Biology Letters, she listed herself as second author, even though she was the PI. "If I was in a biology department I likely would have listed myself last," she says. "However, if I did that, my earth science colleagues would think I contributed the least."

These obstacles aren’t insurmountable: DeSantis has decided to follow her field's authorship tradition no matter where she publishes, and pointedly list herself as the corresponding author when she is the PI. She clarifies this in her CV, and is also prepared to explain during her tenure review why her name frequently appears last in her publications.

Rewarding results

Often, greater risks and difficulties also mean greater rewards. After DeSantis adjusted to the cultural change in her Peruvian project, the collaboration became incredibly rewarding, she says. "We’ve basically applied the tools that I’m comfortable with to address archeological questions that they’re interested in," namely the relationship between cultural shifts in those civilizations and environmental changes like floods and droughts. DeSantis finds the work gratifying. "It expands the types of projects I am involved with, and really forces me to think more broadly about how to interpret paleoecological data when humans and society are involved," she says.

Courtesy of Naomi Leonard
Naomi Leonard (left) and Susan Marshall

Naomi Leonard, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Princeton University who studies the collective motion of schools of fish and flocks of birds, discovered that cross-disciplinary work can be rewarding when it bridges two of your own divergent interests. In 2009, after Leonard presented some of her research in a public lecture, she was approached by a choreographer named Susan Marshall who had just started at Princeton. Marshall wondered what would happen if she asked her dancers to apply the same rules of movement that fish or birds use, and proposed a collaboration to answer the question. A dancer herself, Leonard immediately envisioned the scientific possibilities.

About a year later, Leonard and Marshall conducted a series of investigations with some of their students and dancers from Marshall's professional troupe. The dance studio became a sort of experimental laboratory for flocking behavior. They gave the dancers basic rules such as, "Stay an arm's length from two designated other dancers and don't let anyone get closer than arm's length." Leonard and her students analyzed video of the performances so they could determine who responded to whom and which dancers proved to have the most influence. Among other findings, they learned that some leaders seemed to spontaneously emerge in the troupe in mid-motion. Such findings could help researchers better understand group dynamics. The collaborators presented their research at the American Control Conference in Montreal last year. This year, the team wrote a chapter on the project that will appear in a book titled Controls and Art.

Leonard says she’s hooked; she wants to continue working on such projects. "You get to be a student in a different field," Leonard says. "You get to think about something new." The live experiments may be over, but the project, called "Flock Logic," lives on in the form of a flock simulator that anyone can download. Users can assign different rules to virtual dancers to see how their movement changes.

Funding across disciplines

A variety of funding mechanisms exist for scientists willing to stretch their boundaries, even those in the earliest stages of their careers. DeSantis’s Peruvian project, for example, benefitted from an internal funding program through Vanderbilt's International Office that offers grants to teams that span several disciplines. "Without these sorts of funding initiatives, the time invested to learn a new language and new literature may be enough to prevent faculty from engaging in more difficult collaborations," DeSantis says. 

Some of these funding mechanisms go back decades and have crystallized into dedicated research centers. The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, for example, was founded in 1984, and its research on cities and sustainability unites urban planners, economists, sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, and complex system theorists. A more recent example is the BEYOND Center at Arizona State University in Tempe, founded in 2007 and led by physicist Paul Davies. The center aims to bring together scientists and philosophers from all disciplines to attempt to answer some of the biggest mysteries, such as the origin of the universe and of life. BEYOND houses everything from the search for extraterrestrial intelligence to the NIH-funded Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, which marries oncology and the physical sciences.

Private foundations such as The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Explorations initiative also offer grants to teams of scientists who bridge disciplines to solve global problems. Here, untraditional collaborations are the rule rather than the exception, says Steven Buchsbaum, who is head of the Discovery & Translational Sciences team at the Gates Foundation. "Instead of asking for advances in a fundamental field of science, we’re asking any field of science to help develop a new solution to a problem," he says.

A number of federal funding agencies post their funding program lists online. The National Science Foundation maintains a list of its funding programs that cut across multiple disciplines. NIH's Common Fund maintains a similar list. NIH's various institutes and centers also offer cross-disciplinary awards on an individual basis, but there is no centralized list.

In 2005, Bost and Piller received an R01 grant from NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. They used that funding to pursue the research that eventually led them to spin off their company, SoyMeds. Bost and Piller admit their collaboration was, to some degree, a risk. But the payoff was enormous. Had Bost never met Piller, he says he might still be struggling to coax plants to express the right proteins. Had Piller never met Bost, he likely wouldn’t be working to prevent and treat human diseases, and SoyMeds wouldn't exist.

DeSantis agrees that it's important to take cross-disciplinary risks if you're motivated to solve big problems or learn more about another field. But time will tell whether that risk will be worth it for her. "In the end, I think that doing interdisciplinary research is a benefit, but it will all come down to if I am granted tenure."

Cassandra Willyard is a science journalist living in New York City.