Becoming More Interdisciplinary

I study the brain.

I examine how language and hence communication is represented in a brain and the impact disorders such as autism have on it. While my scientific training is primarily about study of speech and language, I have often lamented not being able to take an interdisciplinary approach to my work.

I would like to work with a psychologist, to understand how emotional and mental health impact communication. Or involve an occupational therapist to examine how improvement in motor skills improve cognitive and communication skills. A biologist would study the changes in the brain's biochemical milieu as a result of speech-language and occupational intervention.

Such an interdisciplinary approach not only brings together the depth of expertise of faculty from different disciplines, but also draws on the breadth of knowledge that would help advance research and the sharing of ideas in broad ways. After all we are studying the same brain from different viewpoints.

Interdisciplinary endeavors are certainly growing in academia.

Much of the recent funding initiatives of National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal funding agencies involve research that necessitates experts from multiple disciplines.

At Harvard, the sub-discipline of physical anthropology combined with modern genetics to create a department of human evolutionary biology. At Yale, the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs applies diverse sciences to the study issues from diplomacy to public health and international law while offering a new major. North Carolina State University has brought 42 new faculty members in 12 areas to bolster its interdisciplinary research programs where economists, social scientists, educators, statisticians and molecular biologists, among others, are examining the social and economic implications of genetically modified organisms and an initiative on digital learning in K-12 education.

The University of Utah launched the Consortium on Families and Health Research, which draws on the expertise of faculty members in 11 departments to explore how family behavior can contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Its researchers have already discovered ways that parental behavior can impact the management of chronic illnesses.

Texas Woman's University's Woodcock Institute for Advancement of Neurocognitive Research and Applied Practice is another model that aims to cross disciplinary lines.

Why the need for interdisciplinary approach when the traditional disciplinary approaches have worked over the last many decades, and why now?

Well, first, technology has allowed unprecedented advances in almost all scientific disciplines and it is impossible for today's scientists to become experts in all areas. The days of a Renaissance era scholar such as Leonardo da Vinci have undoubtedly passed and the ideal of unity of all knowledge has given way to specialization.

Second, policy makers, funding agencies and the public in general are demanding not just results but the socio-economic impacts of scientific research. Decisions regarding development or changes in policy require integration of scientific information to understand impacts on the society at large. Such comprehensive understanding cannot be achieved solely through a disciplinary approach but via collective expertise.

That is not saying that we do away with individual disciplines. Just like the story about the elephant and the blind-folded men identifying different parts of the elephant as different objects based on their perspective, disciplinary education is necessary to study specific areas but then blind-folds must come off for the collaborative effort to view the whole picture. In the case of my own research, the study of a disorder such as autism from my own disciplinary perspective is important, but collaboration with other disciplines is vital.

To be sure, there are significant practical barriers to interdisciplinary approach. Even under the best of circumstances, scientists find it difficult to cross boundaries into another scientific discipline to gain a broader understanding. It requires cooperation of experts often with very diverse training to study and analyze a problem as well as considerable investment of time and intellectual energy. The fear that intrusion from other disciplines may diminish the value of one's own research is very real among the scientists.

In spite of such concerns, most groundbreaking research crosses disciplinary lines. It is interesting to note that the 2014 Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to three scientists who were not trained as chemists. The human genome project could not have been possible without expertise from genetics, computer science and bioengineering, among many others.

It is my sincere hope that interested faculty and students will engage in collaboration to develop innovative methods to examine neurocognitive disorders across the lifespan.

Interdisciplinary studies open doorways to diverse career paths in the sciences while providing flexibility and expansion possibilities for traditional disciplines.