At some point during their education, most students in the sciences come up against an inescapable obstacle to serious study – the need to specialize. Modern science is characterized by a vast wealth and rapid exchange of information, and as a result, scientific progress must be carried forward through a myriad of highly specialized venues. In many ways, this has proven fortuitous, enabling research to advance at a pace and to an extent hitherto unimaginable. Yet despite this, there are definite limitations to specialization. Great scientific discoveries in every field are built upon existing work, and critical insight can often be gained from an external perspective. As such, establishing interdisciplinary cooperation is essential for the development of an efficient and capable scientific community.
A quick examination of the recipients of the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Medicine since the turn of the millennium reveals recognition of a range of research areas, from the discovery of conductive polymers to the development of GFP to MRI imaging and vesicle transport mechanisms. Each alone represents a highly specialized endeavour and yet many have proven applicable well outside their initial scope. The broad appeal of science is directly related to the enormous variety and the possibility of still greater discoveries. Be it through medicine, technology, synthetic advances or even foundational work on basic science, this collective venture offers an opportunity to be involved in actively shaping the future in relevant ways.
It has been a longstanding belief of mine that science cannot be conducted in information silos. Individual fields should not be isolated from each other, nor should they be rendered inaccessible to society at large, which is increasingly directly impacted by scientific discoveries. The nature of science as an information system and the resulting significance of interdisciplinary interaction are best underscored by John Craig Venter in his book Life at the Speed of Light, wherein he acknowledges and applauds the contributions of multiple scientists from vastly different backgrounds to the development of a single, specialized field. More than ever, differences of opinion and unique perspectives on similar problems offer enormous advantages. The potential use of hollow nanospheres as agents for drug delivery is oddly reminiscent of viral vectors. Antireflective coatings for solar cells can find their inspiration in the morphology of a moth’s eye. The ability to see beyond our specific interests and to invest in others, even at a superficial level, opens up a new sphere of creativity that has the potential to inspire novel discoveries.
Pooling our available resources and specialized knowledge for collective projects can also lead to the creation of entirely new fields. Bioinformatics and genomics have arisen from the combination of computer science, biochemistry and chemistry. The advent of personalized medicine is also largely a product of these interdisciplinary endeavours. Similarly, the adaptation of techniques such as 3D printing to biological applications like tissue generation depends entirely on a complex integration of software design, engineering, and biology. Many such projects are actively studied at the University of Toronto. Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Chemistry, Biochemistry and Immunology, among others, all house multiple cross-appointed faculty members, who are able to recruit students from widely varied backgrounds and thereby create research environments that foster projects with novel perspectives and goals.
The approach that we adopt to interdisciplinary communication as a scientific community will ultimately shape our development. Nascent sciences will require the voices and expertise of specialists capable of envisioning applications for novel inventions and innovations within their own disciplines. As researchers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to underline the importance of basic scientific knowledge in the lives of everyone in our society, to inspire a new generation of scientists and to encourage them to interact, teach and learn from their peers while pursuing specific research interests. We are also given the chance to demonstrate that underlying the complexity and specialization is a common spirit dedicated to questioning, learning and building our knowledge so that humanity as a whole stands to benefit. To this end, we may lead by example by acting as an interdisciplinary network capable of growing together and, in doing so, advancing ever further.
Latest posts by Joe Manion (see all)
- Mind Meld: Embracing Interdisciplinary Cooperation in Science - March 6, 2014