Learning to Swim in an Interdisciplinary Sea


As an undergraduate at King's College in London, I could never decide what to specialize in--zoology, botany, immunology, genetics. The problem was that I was interested in all of them--and as a postdoc, I still am. Right now, you could call me a behavioral ecologist and biochemist, but I am learning to be a behavioral-ecological biochemist and molecular biologist. Soon, I intend to add neurobiology and genetics to that list. I'd like to learn some cell biology, too. My whole, albeit short, career in science has so far been in an interdisciplinary setting, and that's the way I like it.

For my Ph.D. and first postdoc, I worked on unraveling the role of chemical signals in the mouse olfactory communication system. My Ph.D. was awarded by the University of Liverpool in the UK under the direction of two supervisors, Rob Beynon (a biochemist) and Jane Hurst (a behavioral ecologist). Not content that I should be a behaviorist or a biochemist, Rob and Jane threw me in at the deep end right from the start and insisted I become both: I went into the field to catch subjects, designed behavioral bioassays, and analyzed the production of chemical signals, using volatile and protein-separation techniques.

Working in Jane and Rob's group started me off in interdisciplinary science, and when the time came to leave, I was determined to stay in interdisciplinary science. That's exactly what I found at the Bauer Center for Genomics Research at Harvard University. The center was set up specifically to take an interdisciplinary approach to asking (and answering) postgenomic questions: We have the genetic code, but which parts are genes, and what do they do? The Bauer Center is a blend of biologists, chemists, bioinformaticians, and mathematicians. Once again, I am working with two PIs: Hans Hofmann, a neuroethologist who is mapping phenotypic variation (the phenome) of cichlid fishes, and Oliver Rando, who studies chromatin remodeling and epigenetic mechanisms. Our aim is to dissect the inheritance patterns and the complexity of behavior, using DNA microarrays.

Interdisciplinary research can be rewarding, but what things should you consider before starting out? It's important to realize that there can be a bucket load of pitfalls. For instance, it can be really hard learning to cross boundaries--both intellectually and on a personal level. I have been lucky because all of my PIs believe in interdisciplinary science, but this kind of enthusiasm is not guaranteed. My advice is to look for PIs who think the way you do and not try to change people who are set in their ways.

With different disciplines inevitably come different personalities, approaches, and perspectives--after all, that's what you're there to learn. Still, you will have to juggle and cope with differences of opinion--particularly if you initiated the collaboration. This can be a real challenge, but it is also half the fun. In the end, you should feel as if you are able to interpret each discipline for those who speak a different scientific "language."

Although this may seem an obvious point, try to make sure your PIs are on friendly terms. One benefit of joining an established and successful collaboration, rather than initiating one yourself, is that the PIs already know how to deal with each other. Again, here I have been lucky--Hans and Ollie get on like a house on fire; Rob and Jane have gone one better and are now engaged to be married! Keep in mind that if your PIs don't get along well on a personal level, you will be stuck right in the middle.

So, what are the benefits? If you have PIs who are based at different universities, hospitals, or research centers, you will not only be introduced to the different work environments, methods, and philosophies, but you will also meet lots of different people. Although my Ph.D. was awarded at the University of Liverpool, the PIs were initially collaborators from different universities who both moved to Liverpool. So I started my Ph.D. at Nottingham University, moved to UMIST in Manchester, and finished up at the main Liverpool campus and the Liverpool vet school field station--and I met some great people along the way.

In addition to the social side, you will also learn a lot. You will work with postdocs and graduate students from different backgrounds who have areas of specialty that are different from yours and from one another's. Just sitting down to lunch in this type of environment will teach you a good deal. To take on this kind of research, though, learning must be something that you really enjoy and want to do.

When working on an interdisciplinary project, you will have to admit that you don't know what people are talking about again and again and again. In fact, I have been back in undergraduate lectures recently, trying to get my head around molecular biology. Starting off at the bottom of the ladder can be really hard, especially once you've gained your Ph.D. and gotten used to knowing a few of the answers instead of always asking the questions. However, with your new knowledge, you start seeing the things you knew before from new and interesting perspectives. I really recommend it. If you are willing to take a leap across the boundaries of disciplines, then the questions that you ask and the answers that you get should be more insightful. Remember that the responses of animals (read plants, cells, or whatever it is you're working on) are not confined within our definitions of disciplines. Taking an interdisciplinary approach can really be productive--the first paper from my thesis was published in Nature--but it is also really hard. Would I do it again? Absolutely!

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers