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Multidisciplinary Research: Today's Hottest Buzzword?

Bioinformatics, bioengineering, nanobiotechnology, biomimetic robotics, biophysical chemistry ? These days it sounds as if you can pick and mix scientific disciplines to make your own. But can you really? How easy is it for early-career scientists to become multi-, inter-, or even transdisciplinary? And for a start, what's the difference between all those terms?

Multi- (or pluri-) and interdisciplinary research are often used interchangeably (including by Next Wave ?), but originally they referred to different approaches. When experts from different fields work together on a common subject within the boundaries of their own discipline, they are said to adopt a multidisciplinary approach. However, if they stick to these boundaries they may reach a point where the project cannot progress any further. They will then have to bring themselves to the fringes of their own fields to form new concepts and ideas--and create a whole new, interdisciplinary field. A transdisciplinary team is an interdisciplinary team whose members have developed sufficient trust and mutual confidence to transcend disciplinary boundaries and adopt a more holistic approach.

So is multi- (or inter- or trans-) disciplinarity today's hottest buzzword in scientific careers? Well, judging by the numerous conferences and training programmes around the world, it certainly looks like it. Last September, for example, a National Research Council panel in the United States issued a report entitled "Bio2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists" that was requested by the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It strongly recommended that undergraduate biology education should incorporate mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, and engineering until "interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature." In the United Kingdom, joint Research Council workshops have been held to encourage young physicists and chemists to think about the opportunities waiting for them at the interface with the life sciences.

Nobel laureate and new president of the UK's Royal Society of Chemistry, Professor Sir Harry Kroto, also advocates a multidisciplinary approach. He thinks that vice-chancellors should acknowledge "that the traditional chemistry/physics/biology departmentalised university infrastructures--which are now clearly out-of-date and a serious hindrance to progress--must be replaced by new ones which actively foster the synergy inherent in multidisciplinarity."

Multidisciplinarity has a LOT to offer to early-career scientists in terms of opportunities and excitement. The Human Genome Project, the World Wide Web, and the boundaries of the infinitely small are only a few of the fertile fields where new research is flourishing. Those scientists who have taken the plunge swear by multidisciplinarity and will even say that you won't be able to survive in science if you don't keep an open mind to the advantages afforded by multidisciplinary approaches.

But if the rewards are great, so too are the challenges. Understanding the concepts underlying a discipline other than your own, finding a common language to communicate ideas, trusting research you haven't the skills to assess yourself, and finding somewhere to publish are only a few of them.

We have gathered in this feature articles that offer you snapshots of multidisciplinary research in different countries, insight into what can be gained with such an approach and what it takes to become multidisciplinary, and a sample of the programmes and centres that can help you on your journey.

So, if you want to find out why you should become multidisciplinary and how to do so, follow the links below.

Multidisciplinarity: Today's Hottest Buzzword?

Why are so many rushing to jump on to the interdisciplinary bandwagon? And how does this bode for the future of research? Freelancer Lesley Pray investigates the buzz about interdisciplinarity and how agencies such as the National Academies and the Association of American Universities are trying to come to grips with the phenomenon.

Becoming Multidisciplinary: The journey ?

A chemist who now works with biologists and NMR specialists, Annie Bligh believes that the first step towards multidisciplinarity requires a strong monodisciplinary base.

Students and postdocs at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (FHCRC) in Seattle, Washington, have been running an Interdisciplinary Journal Club for years. Thomas Paulson tells us what they are gaining from it.

Bo Huang and Thomas Perroud think that there are many advantages to doing a PhD in a multidisciplinary environment, but that these come at some cost.

Fai Leung's own experience of interdisciplinarity has taught him that getting in the right mindset starts with making good friendships out of working relationships.

Being Multidisciplinary: Challenges and rewards

During her PhD in Bulgaria, Christina Vidinova was given the opportunity to experience multidisciplinarity in Germany through the EC's Marie Curie training site programme.

Jennifer Gardy and Fiona Brinkman point out that the interdisciplinary nature of pathogen bioinformatics is a powerful tool, not only for their research but also for keeping the door to diverse career paths open.

Next Wave's German editor mines his own experiences to explore the realities of an interdisciplinary education.

These days, universities and medical schools just love to hire young interdisciplinary scientists. But the honeymoon can be short, as many institutions fail the test of evaluating interdisciplinary research. Here's how to improve the odds of getting a fair tenure evaluation.

Caroline Payne finds that there are many rewards for juggling several disciplines at once, but she warns that there can be a bucket load of pitfalls if you don't think before you dive.

Training Programmes

Based on the many opportunities available to physical scientists in the life sciences, a new Doctoral Training Centre has open its doors in Oxford to give them the truly interdisciplinary training they need.

Interdisciplinarity may be today's fashionable buzzword, but Linköping University in Sweden has been thinking about it since the 1960s and is continuously coming up with new ways to facilitate and teach this approach.

A new training program at Queen's University in Ontario acknowledges the need for transdisciplinary cancer researchers able to translate research advances into clinical applications and health care policies.

The interdisciplinary Chemical Biology program at McGill University in Montreal, designed to provide training in chemistry and cell and molecular biology, is attracting students from both spheres.

The Bridge graduate fellowship program at the University of British Columbia not only allows Elizabeth Matovinovic to bring together science and engineering, it also puts the two disciplines within the context of social policy.

Innovative funding programs from the NIH Office of Research on Women's Health have stimulated interdisciplinary research.

Take It Further

For yet more information, here is a selection of the most useful resources our international team has put together.