To paraphrase Mark Twain's comment about the weather, "It seems everyone talks about interdisciplinary research, but no one does anything to teach it." Although almost everyone agrees on the value of interdisciplinary research for addressing complex biological problems, there needs to be more progress in training the current and upcoming generations of researchers to utilize this approach. Unfortunately, not all research settings are conducive to interdisciplinary research training. In addition to requiring groups with expertise in a variety of disciplines, there needs to be a commitment on the part of the institution to make opportunities available for interdisciplinary interactions. And even when the infrastructure that allows interdisciplinary research to take place exists, providing training for the next generation of scientists doesn't happen automatically.
At the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC), there has been a strong center-driven effort to provide resources for interdisciplinary research training, such as establishing the Joint Degree and Dual Mentor programs.
However, one of the early efforts to promote interdisciplinary research and training at FHCRC started as a grassroots approach to understand what colleagues in different disciplines were doing. At a center-wide retreat in 1996, researchers presented their ideas for fostering interactions among the divisions. Christophe Sachsenmaier, then a postdoc in Basic Sciences, suggested the simple approach of lunchtime meetings for postdocs and students interested in learning about research in the other divisions. FHCRC President and Director Lee Hartwell was so enthusiastic about this idea that he volunteered to pay for pizza and sodas at club meetings. In June 1996, the Interdisciplinary Club (IDC) was born and has been meeting monthly ever since.
The club is open to everyone--students, postdocs, faculty, and staff--although students and postdocs make up the majority of the members. The format of the IDC meetings is simple: Each month, a different person presents some aspects of their research with an emphasis on its background and scientific approach. This allows participants from other disciplines to learn the basics of different experimental approaches in a relaxed atmosphere where questions are encouraged. Because the center is made up of four diverse divisions (Public Health Sciences, Basic Sciences, Clinical Research, and Human Biology), the talks cover something outside a member's direct area of expertise most of the time, which makes for an eager and enthusiastic audience.
A few times a year the club offers presentations from guest speakers. In the past, these have ranged from center faculty brought in to present on a particular topic of interest, to visiting scientists who can share their research and career experiences, to FHCRC President Hartwell, who meets with the club yearly to hear the questions and concerns of students, postdocs, and staff. The variety of the presentations, the open and congenial atmosphere, and the fact that the subject matter is determined by club members all have been key elements to the success of the program.
In addition to this form of training offered by the club, members benefit in other ways. The IDC provides a venue for students and postdocs to improve their presentation skills and discuss problems they have encountered, and it promotes collaboration and networking. While the transient nature of graduate and postdoctoral training means that the makeup of the club changes from year to year, there is always a core of 20 to 30 people who attend each month, usually a mixture of new faces and members that have been coming for years. Most students and postdocs know how easy it is to become focused solely on their own research. The IDC allows interactions with colleagues to find out not only what they are working on, but also to understand their reasons for taking a particular approach to a problem. This exposure to the wider world of science allows us to look at our own research in new ways, and in the long run makes us better scientists.
Everyone does interdisciplinary research to some extent--all scientists use different techniques to address the problems they're trying to solve. The difference now is that people are realizing that instead of simply using different techniques. Using different experimental approaches that traditionally have been unique to a particular discipline allows problems to be addressed in ways that never have been considered previously. However, learning a different experimental approach is much more involved than simply learning a new technique. Resources like the FHCRC IDC are not going to solve the training needs for the next generation of interdisciplinary researcher. But it is a great way for trainee scientists to gain exposure to topics of interest across the disciplines, and to help them to determine how to get the training they need to become the kind of scientists they want to be.
Tom Paulson is a staff scientist in the Division of Public Health Sciences and Human Biology at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. He can be contacted at email@example.com for questions or comments.