Modern research in universities, as well as industry, increasingly involves interdisciplinary teams. To facilitate such research, academic departments seek faculty members with multidisciplinary backgrounds – in terms of broad skills gained in training and/or experience working in research teams that include specialists in several fields. Finding those individuals isn’t easy, though. “It’s a real competition among the best universities in the world to get these people,” says Anthony Masi, provost of McGill University.
The multidisciplinary concept is hardly new. “It has been the trend in life science for the past 20 years,” says Christoph Borchers, who recently left his position as faculty director in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s proteomics core facility to move to the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “It’s been given a financial push from the biotechnology business.” What is novel is the enthusiasm that research universities now show for the concept. “I see a very strong trend toward multidisciplinary research,” says Fred Gilman, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Physics Department. “It has a long history here, with generally low barriers between disciplines and encouragement from the university.” Masi has a similar view. “Just about universally across North American campuses and here at McGill we see an increase in multidisciplinary majors,” he says.
But does the academic attraction to multidisciplinary matters represent a response to an authentic phenomenon or merely reaction to a fleeting fashion? “Some of the interest in multidisciplinary science occurs because it’s fashionable, and some people pay lip service to it,” admits Bruce Lahn, professor of genetics at the University of Chicago Hospitals. “But some is real; just like any fashion, it comes with both hype and substance.” Much of the substance stems from the nature of modern research. “It’s not a result of people trying to rename disciplines,” Gilman says. “The pursuit of questions at the frontier of science simply leads people across traditional disciplinary boundaries.”
University administrators occasionally have ambiguous feelings about the need for interdisciplinary approaches and programs. “Some institutions have embarked on this wholeheartedly,” agrees Linda Cork, professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Medicine at Stanford Medical Center. “But it’s a mixed bag. Others are working more on disciplinary lines.”
Creating genuine interdisciplinary programs takes a lot of work. “Traditional boundaries of disciplines are there for a reason; they’re not that easy to bridge,” Lahn explains. “Combining chemistry with genetics won’t be a good training experience unless there’s a good reason to do that.” As a result, he continues, “Interdisciplinary programs at a graduate level are relatively rare.”
That situation may not last long, however. “Increasingly you will find multidisciplinary degrees,” Gilman says. Many of those degrees span more than two fields with evidently close connections, such as physics and biology. “We have a new Bachelor of Arts and Science degree,” Masi says. “So we’re seeing undergraduate students being very interested in majoring in something that cuts across disciplinary boundaries.” McGill oversees several other interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary areas – in neuroscience and environmental studies, for example. “We have also linked music to engineering and psychology,” Masi continues.
In some cases, the multidisciplinary degrees are also multi-institutional. Last year, for example, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh set up a degree program in computational biology and in biophysics that involved several departments from both institutions. Similarly, the University of North Carolina has what Borchers calls “good collaborations” with Duke University. In particular, he says, “our proteomics facility is a joint facility. We even have funding from Duke.”
Stanford, meanwhile, “has established the Department of Bioengineering between two schools – medicine and engineering. Such joint ventures are very unusual,” Cork says. “They’ve also established other institutes for this purpose – putting together people who have cross-disciplinary abilities and can work together effectively.”
Institutions don’t have to offer specific interdisciplinary degrees to become involved in the multidisciplinary movement. Carnegie Mellon’s Physics Department, for example, has begun to shift its emphasis within its broad disciplinary tent. “Our top priority has been an initiative hiring several new faculty members in biological physics,” Gilman explains. “After hiring a senior person, we’re in the process of searching for junior faculty.”
Research topics in a typical department that combines physics and life science can include molecular self-assembly; the physics of membranes, including cell membranes; information theory; signal processing and the nervous system; and neural nets. Those topics illustrate the rationale for multidisciplinary studies. “It’s important to be guided by the research,” the University of Chicago Hospitals’ Lahn declares. “Bioinformatics provides an example. So do genomics programs that involve some biophysics. The bottom line is the reason that interdisciplinary research has become such a buzzword is that a lot of new discoveries are coming between disciplines: microarrays, bioinformatics, combinatorial chemistry, and bioengineering, for example.”
Depth and Breadth
What abilities and backgrounds do academic department heads seek when they hire faculty for multidisciplinary research and teaching? The issue comes down to matters of depth and breadth: Recruiters want scientists with a strong grounding in at least one traditional field, but with enough background in other fields to understand and work with specialists in those disciplines.
Cork explains the difficulty finding such individuals. “As people pursue advanced training, the necessity to focus on a particular area and get some depth can create a set of blinders,” she says. “Another problem is the individual who is too diffused. Individuals need to maintain their own focus, but learn enough about other areas to be able to understand them and react accordingly. That’s difficult in academe.”
The difficulty stems in part from institutional imperatives. “It has much to do with the attitudes of institutions as they look at people for promotion and advancement,” Cork explains. “The issue is how you evaluate the contributions of individuals in multidisciplinary projects. Is, say, a molecular virologist a one-trick pony who has worked on one project, or a person who can contribute to many different groups? And some pathologists just read slides, while others are full partners in multidisciplinary studies.”
Dealing with that issue demands careful accommodation on behalf of universities and their departments. “Agreements with new faculty members must be carefully done at the beginning to make sure that the scientist working across fields does not get caught in between,” Gilman says. “When it comes to the tenure process, for example, departments need to know how two or three departments can judge multidisciplinary persons for tenure. It is crucial that the institution thinks its way through at the beginning so that the multidisciplinary person doesn’t suffer part of the way through.” That won’t be easy. “A lot of universities,” Lahn says, “use the traditional training model, with training narrow throughout the program.”
Lack of Degrees
That fact has an obvious impact on potential recruits for multidisciplinary faculty positions. “It’s still quite common that the people you’re interested in don’t have multidisciplinary degrees,” Gilman explains. So for now recruiters must generally opt for the next best alternative: scientists with strong backgrounds in a single subject but an obvious inclination to participate in other fields, often backed by experience. “There must be plenty of depth in a specific field, but multidisciplinary training is a must,” Borchers asserts. “You can’t be in a position where, as we say in German, ‘you can’t look over your plate.’”
McGill’s Masi makes a similar point. “To be a good contributor to interdisciplinary studies, you have to have a strong grounding in your disciplines; for example, a physical chemist looking at ways molecules move inside nerve cells,” he says. “We want our deans to hire people who will feel comfortable in their disciplines and also working across disciplinary boundaries. Sharing the methods means there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary fertilization of ideas.”
What does that mean in practice? “Our primary emphasis on faculty recruitment is excellence – the ability to illustrate a research agenda,” Masi continues. “We’re more interested in the quality of candidates as compared with their ability to make a difference in an interdisciplinary team. We believe that they show that in their research topics.”
Gilman’s recruiting at Carnegie Mellon demonstrates another aspect of the approach. “Almost all of the leading candidates for our senior position were people who received a physics Ph.D. and had since moved their research programs to be in biological physics,” he recalls. As in the case of multidisciplinary research programs, practitioners need to move in the direction of the research. “Degrees in, say, physics or chemistry help,” Lahn says. “But the important thing is that the project spans two or more disciplines. It’s project driven rather than training driven.”
Looking Beyond the Boundaries
Lahn’s – and the University of Chicago Hospitals’ – own recruiting illustrates that concept. “In genetics we are interested in people who are strong in statistics, people who are developing genome technologies, and biophysicists or physicists or computer scientists to develop computational structures for biologists to carry out their research,” he says. “I also hear that a lot of departments round here are looking for people not within the traditional boundaries of their departments.”
Cork, a DVM, takes a particular view of flexibility when she hires faculty members for her department at Stanford Medical Center. “Often basic scientists and physicians have no understanding of the training vets have and what they can offer,” she explains. “We have a clinical responsibility for lab animal care. So I ask: Does the applicant have lab animal skills (or pathology skills) and basic science skills?” For her, multidisciplinary research involves collaboration inside and beyond her department. “Because we are a small department, we ask how a person will be successful. Do we want a department in which individuals will do one thing apiece or a department in which everyone can do more than one thing? Also, I look on every one of my faculty recruitments as a joint recruitment. I look for a match in my department or outside for each individual. They can function in my department in a clinical setting, but undertake their scholarly and teaching activities in another department.”
Borchers, a chemist who admits that he has never had one lesson in biochemistry, has ambitious recruitment plans in his new position at the University of Victoria, which will also involve him in the Proteomics Network, organized by the province of British Columbia and other universities. “I’ll be helping to hire multidisciplinary faculty members, including biomathematicians with an interest in life science,” he says. He will also continue his connection with the University of North Carolina, where he has helped to introduce formal education on multidisciplinary matters. “When I am teaching proteomics as applied to life science, I have people in my class from public health, biochemistry, and chemistry,” he says.
Skills Beyond Science
Working effectively in multidisciplinary teams demands more than strictly scientific skills. Communications ability is essential. “McGill, like most of the major research-intensive universities, looks for the candidates who have presented their case,” Masi says. “The job interview is very important. It provides a way to help ascertain whether individuals have qualities that help them to disseminate. We have found that the best researchers make the best teachers and the best public spokesmen.”
Cork adds more essential advice. “The persons who are rigid and inflexible about what they want to do won’t be effective in multidisciplinary situations,” she says. “We’re really looking for scientists with wide intellectual curiosity.”
Does a multidisciplinary mindset exist? “Definitely,” Lahn says. “I know people who, when you talk to them about anything outside their field, will immediately shut you up. Other people will say that something new could lead to 20 new projects.” And how can young scientists develop that necessary multidisciplinary mindset? “They need to be in a good training atmosphere with interdepartmental cooperation,” Borchers says. “Only productive relationships lead to productive science.”
A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne ( email@example.com  ) covers science and technology from his base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A.