The Essence of Interdisciplinary Research--Mindset Matters


Genomics technologies such as microarray-expression profiling allow scientists to study biological systems on a global scale. They have underpinned many exciting findings recently and make many of us want to jump onto the genomics bandwagon. But, unlike traditional biological research, genomics requires an unprecedented level of cooperation of talents from different disciplines. This has literally revolutionized the way we do scientific research--we must now be "interdisciplinary."

Because I am interested in elucidating genetic pathways from microarray data and studying the dynamics of these pathways, I set out to find a postdoctoral position on this topic last year. I also wanted my postdoctoral experience to help me contribute to the developing functional-genomics research field in my home city--Hong Kong. Being a small city that lacks space for conducting large-scale functional genomics projects on animal models such as the mouse, Hong Kong obviously needs initially to focus on more handy biological models.

I decided to utilize yeast and zebrafish as models in my microarray-pathway analysis project, in order to gain insight on how to pipe the genomics- research experience from simpler to more complex organisms. But working on a microarray project requires a collaboration of experts from different fields--especially for someone like me, who wanted to use microarray analysis on two quite different models. Another problem I encountered when looking for a postdoc position was that virtually no single research group was working on all three aspects of the research I wanted to do. Therefore, it was crucial for me to find a good interdisciplinary research environment in which I could conduct this project.

After quite a bit of searching, I met two principal investigators at Harvard University--Dr. Duccio Cavalieri at the Center for Genomics Research ( CGR), who is working on yeast pathway analysis by microarray, and Prof. John Dowling, an eminent zebrafish neuroscientist in the department of molecular and cellular biology. CGR is an interdisciplinary initiative that combines various approaches and experts from different disciplines and fosters collaborations between them. I was lucky enough to have their support on a collaborative project studying apoptotic networks in both models by microarray analysis. I have started by understanding the yeast apoptotic response to acetic acid, a natural environmental stress. Next, I will utilize the resultant biological and technical insights to study zebrafish retinal apoptosis during development and in disease states such as night blindness. For the past 2 months, I have been gearing up my research on the yeast component.

I find that the arrangements in the laboratory greatly assist interactions. The center houses biologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, theoretical physicists, chemists, and bioinformaticians under the same roof. There is no separated lab for each group. Rubbing shoulders with one another and sharing ideas during various seminars, group meetings, and happy-hour gatherings have efficiently nourished interactions among us. It is very exciting to gain new knowledge from your colleagues.

Confucius said, "When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers." It is always true that there is something to learn from other people, but that also depends on your willingness to ask and share. This can be quite tricky in some laboratories. My colleagues have set up an excellent sharing-attitude role model for me. For example, my mentor, Dr. Cavalieri, shares his latest research ideas with everyone, enjoying food and wine with colleagues as if they were his family. I have seen so many fruitful exchanges coming from such spontaneous interaction. New insights, solutions, and techniques come up readily during small talk. Things that are overlooked by researchers from one discipline can be very obvious in the eyes of another. I therefore realize that if you do not have an interdisciplinary mindset and you neglect to make every effort to interact, you are simply working "independently" among your "interdisciplinary" colleagues. You will never appreciate the real power of interdisciplinary research, and it would be meaningless for you to join such a team.

The burgeoning interdisciplinary era comes with many challenges. For instance, people from various disciplines talk in quite different professional languages and describe and solve the same problem in very different ways. It takes time, patience, and hard work to fully appreciate the wisdom of different worlds. Besides, you'll need to fight an inherent human characteristic, the one that impels us toward interactions with like-minded people--i.e., biologists with biologists, and mathematicians with mathematicians. If we do not strive hard to interact, this could lead us backwards and undermine the benefits of interdisciplinary research in the long term. Finally, we are still in the early stage of this era. We have had a glimpse of its great potential but are still not sure what sort of new science and knowledge this endeavor will ultimately bring.

If the interdisciplinary era is to reach its full potential, I believe that we must work with a truly interdisciplinary mindset. The essence of this mindset is not merely sharing our science or taking advantage of other people's talents; rather, it is making a good friendship out of your working relationship. This appears to be a very simple principle that everyone understands but not everyone can achieve. It is obvious that not many institutions can house a truly interdisciplinary center, but everyone can certainly work with an interdisciplinary mindset!

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