Interdisciplinary to the Core


"Interdisciplinarity" might be today's fashionable buzzword, but for one institution in Sweden, it is the reason for its very existence. Back in the 1960s, Linköping was a college, teaching undergraduate students in traditional faculties of medicine, technology, and arts and sciences. However, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences had no official research endowment, and hence no graduate students and, although it wanted to expand into research, the government said no. Research at Sweden's existing universities was enough for the country's needs, it said; nobody needed more of the same.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Linköping invented a solution that was the opposite of "more of the same." Instead of research groups organised according to university subjects, Linköping would have research organised according to "Temas" (themes)--broad areas of societal and scientific interest. The areas chosen were technology and social change, child studies, communication studies, health and society, and water and environmental studies. Researchers in each Tema would address their area in an interdisciplinary way. Medical doctors, statisticians, and historians would study questions related to health, while civil engineers and sociologists would tackle the technological changes in society.

The Corso, the main bike and walkway through campus runs in front of Kårallen, which houses the Student Union.

This new approach won government approval. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences got its longed-for research endowment, and Linköping was given university status in 1975. Today, its interdisciplinary approach attracts students and staff both nationally and internationally, and interdisciplinary thinking has spread to all parts of Linköping University.

For the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, new themes have been added to the original first five. Within the medical faculty, the big multidisciplinary department of cell biology hosts both traditional fields, such as anatomy and physiology, and newer fields, such as medical genetics. Being part of the same department facilitates contacts that can lead to joint projects, it is believed. The university hospital also hosts the technical faculty's department of biomedical engineering, an expanding interdisciplinary field with close ties to industry.

At Linköping Institute of Technology, as the technical faculty is now called, new programmes such as engineering biology, information technology, and chemical biology span old disciplines. The Institute of Technology also takes part in several interdisciplinary graduate schools, such as the International Graduate School of Management and Industrial Engineering and Forum Scientium (see below).

Looked at in retrospect, the journey appears deceptively easy. To start with, however, the founding fathers of Linköping interdisciplinarity had to contend with a good deal of opposition from more traditionally minded colleagues. Today, feelings have cooled off, the "modernists" having amply proved their point and the "traditionalists" feeling less threatened by the new ideas.

Summing up the Linköping experience so far, one might say that

--A crisis can be a good starting point for something new.

--Traditional disciplines and interdisciplinary cooperation can exist side by side.

--Time, energy, and a number of dedicated enthusiasts are needed to build up new, interdisciplinary ventures.

--The necessary infrastructure includes regular meetings and natural meeting points for the participants in each venture.

--Humility is a must!

This last point was contributed by Ulrich Lohm, a professor in the department of water and environmental studies. According to him, humility means showing respect for the methods and theories of other disciplines. "Natural scientists tend to believe that their science is 100 % objective, unlike the humanities and social sciences. But we have no reason to look down on other disciplines. There is a subjectivity inherent also in the natural scientists' choice of questions, materials, and methods," he says.

The department of water and environmental studies calls itself a "melting-pot for chemists, physicists, technicians, microbiologists, molecular biologists, ecologists, geographers, oceanographers, political scientists, hydrologists, limnologists, social anthropologists, historians, sociologists, ecotoxicologists, statisticians, national economists, and ethnogeographists." It is also a very successful graduate school. Around 80 doctoral theses have been produced, a number of graduates from the departments have become professors in Sweden or abroad, two work at the United Nations, and another has a prominent post in the World Bank.

For recent PhD David Bastviken, the experience has been rewarding. As a biologist, he has enjoyed working with chemists in some projects and listening to the discussion of the social scientists in the department's lunchroom. The only disadvantage he can think of is the small size of his own group, the biologists, which has forced him to look outside Linköping for professional contacts. Because budding scientists need to create networks of their own in any case, this disadvantage can also be looked upon as an advantage.

Working in another field, the graduate school Forum Scientium aims to bridge the gap between natural science, technology, and biomedicine. Organisationally, Forum Scientium started out as an experiment in "twinning"--each graduate student worked with a "twin" from another discipline. This idea sounded good at the planning stage, but it has turned out to be cumbersome at times in practice.

"We spent lots of time learning the basics of each other's disciplines. Yet, due to unforeseen practical problems, we weren't able to publish a single paper together," recalls Helena Järregård. A medical doctor specialising in nerve cell growth, her partner was the polymer scientist Tobias Nyberg. Their joint project was aimed at separating motor and sensor neurons and persuading them to grow into microscopic polymer "channels," a task connected to the development of new prostheses.

Despite their difficulties, like most other Forum Scientium graduates, both Järregård and Nyberg found the interdisciplinary experience rewarding and have gone on to good jobs. Nyberg, currently at Helsinki University in Finland, is looking into postdoc work in either Australia or Japan. Meanwhile, Järregård is trying to promote interdisciplinarity through her work as Director of Graduate Studies at Mälardalen University. She values the training that her PhD gave her in communicating with scientists in other fields, an ability that is becoming more and more important, given the modern trend towards working in teams, she points out. She encourages all graduate students at Mälardalen to reach outside their own disciplines and make contacts with like-minded students in other fields, and she provides meeting-places where such contacts can be made--for instance, conferences and meetings targeted at grad students.

Twinning is no longer a compulsory part of the Forum Scientium, but spontaneous twinning is encouraged. Such cooperation within the group of PhD students often arises naturally, leading to good results, says Forum director Stefan Klintström. At present, graduates from the technical faculty and the medical faculty work side by side in projects such as Cell Clinics. In this project, the scientists are trying to develop closeable conducting polymer vials, which would make it possible to analyse and manipulate small groups of--or even individual--cells. And the technologists are joined by graduates from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in a project called Monitoring of Industrial, Medical, and Environmental Systems. Weekly meetings, monthly seminars, and a weeklong summer workshop ensure the coherence of the whole graduate group.

Forum Scientium is an evident success, but the number of its new graduates has diminished recently, due to reduced funding. One thing is certain, however: Although every university has to change with the times, cooperation across borders will continue to be a hallmark of Linköping. As Klintström puts it, "our university is too small to make our mark in any one discipline. What we can do is to explore the area between disciplines and make our mark in the results of cooperation".

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