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Interdisciplinary research: the old and the new normal

Siddharth Jhunjhunwala

In this next article in our series on interdisciplinary research, Siddharth Jhunjhunwala from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, discusses how all biomedical research carries an interdisciplinary component and how collaborative, multidisciplinary projects are rapidly becoming the new norm in science.

Jhunjhunwala Laboratory, 2018
Jhunjhunwala Laboratory, 2018 

Compartmentalization of natural sciences into the science of the living and non-living possibly occurred thousands of years ago, as humans began to ponder about themselves and the world around them. And this categorization continues today with firm boundaries between various science disciplines, in school and undergraduate curricula. While such divisions may be beneficial for didactic teaching and help improve learning outcomes, a closer look shows that there is a tremendous overlap of concepts among the various disciplines.

The blurring of boundaries is further enhanced in areas of advanced research, and is especially true for biomedical research. In fact, most if not all areas of biomedical research are interdisciplinary. Many biomedical fields started out as a specialized area of research combining tools and concepts from different streams of natural sciences, and over time have established themselves as independent disciplines. For example, biochemistry or biophysics are now well-established disciplines, and other emerging areas of research such as synthetic biology and immunoengineering are beginning to develop their own identity. 

My laboratory focuses its attention on the latter inter-discipline”, and using immunoengineering as an example, I will share my experiences and thoughts on working in an interdisciplinary area. 

What do we do in my laboratory? A short answer to this question is – we utilize polymeric systems to understand immunological processes, and in turn apply what we learn to develop new and better therapeutics. As one might infer from this statement, research in the laboratory involves a close interaction of chemistry, material science, and immunology. Does this mean that everybody who works in my laboratory is an expert in all these areas? Not necessarily! As Sandhya Koushika and Gautam Menon point out in a previous article on interdisciplinary research (paraphrasing a letter from Mirza Ghalib), in the company of chemists and material scientists we are immunologists, and in the company of immunologists we are material scientists. 

Attributable to the above statement is the consideration of interdisciplinary researchers as a jack of all trades and master of none. In my opinion, such a researcher is likely to be the jack of many trades and is definitely a master of a new one. Further, jack of many trades usually implies only a peripheral understanding of each of the disciplines, which is a pitfall to be avoided. Rather, to become an independent interdisciplinary researcher, one must develop a strong foundation in each of the disciplines, and become conversant in the scientific language of these disciplines. 

What does it take to become an interdisciplinary researcher?

  • Hard work: My personal experience with interdisciplinary research began during my doctoral studies, where I simultaneously worked in two laboratories, one with expertise in drug delivery and another with expertise in immunology (and attended two lab meetings). Initially, my workload was double, as I had to learn theoretical and experimental concepts in both areas. But over time it led to the development of a unique expertise that I benefit from to this day. This would be the first lesson for individuals interested in pursuing research in interdisciplinary” areas – initially involves hard work, but you will enjoy its fruits for the rest of your research career. 
  • Flexibility and Openness: What can an interdisciplinary researcher do on facing a problem that their expertise cannot address? Look out for ideas from outside their discipline, i.e. make themselves even more interdisciplinary. Here is a personal example that explains it. While pursuing my postdoctoral research, I was interested in developing tools to deliver therapeutics to lymphocytes. My prior expertise led me to pursue the use of nano and micro-particulate systems, which did not work very well in this case. Fortunately, a conversation over coffee with a fellow researcher introduced me to the idea of using microfluidic systems to form pores in cell membranes. Utilizing this system (with multiple adjustments that are specific for immune cells), we developed a method for delivery of small molecules, proteins, and nucleic acids into lymphocytes. My lesson from this episode was that an interdisciplinary researcher should not hesitate to collaborate with other researchers, and in fact should be more open to it. 

Collaborations: Why must we learn to accept them as the new norm?

  • Problem-centric: Increasing number of researchers are beginning to realize that their sole expertise is insufficient to solve some of the most challenging problems that exist today. And the same problems may be solved with the help of a colleague with a different expertise. This colleague brings in a new approach and thought process, which generally enables better and more efficient solutions to emerge. Such collaborations also often result in a new understanding of the system under examination that neither researcher could have arrived at individually, and helps create novel interdisciplinary areas of research. The recent past has seen an exponential growth in such problem-centric collaborations, and as more researchers begin to recognize its value we would only expect these collaborations to increase. 
  • Tool-centric: The past few decades have also seen the development of a number of new tools and techniques that may be used to answer a wide array of questions in many different fields. I personally believe that it is impossible for one individual to learn all (or many) of these techniques, and interdisciplinary teams in which each individual has expertise in a specific technique may answer new questions much more efficiently. Such collaborative teams form an integral part of modern interdisciplinary research, have resulted in high-quality research over the last few decades, and are likely to become the only option of solving problems in many disciplines. Hence, rather than looking down upon such tool-centric collaborations, they must be encouraged to ensure that we continue to perform cutting edge research that is world-renowned. 
Interdisciplinary research infographic
Interdisciplinary research infographic

In conclusion, while research at the intersection of disciplines is not necessarily new, the methods to pursue interdisciplinary research have evolved. These changes are encouraging researchers to move from being individual contributors to forming collaborative multi-disciplinary teams that are capable of tackling larger and more challenging problems.

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