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The Path to Interdisciplinary Research Cannot be Left to Chance

· Academic Chatter

This piece was originally published on the Academic Chatter blog

I firmly believe that the future is interdisciplinary. When the goals of academic research are centered on answering important questions and improving humanity’s collective breadth of knowledge (rather than the sometimes-arbitrary checkpoints set by universities and research institutes for career advancement), bringing a variety of tools to bear on a challenging topic is a logical strategy. This makes it all the more frustrating that the path to becoming a truly interdisciplinary researcher is often unnecessarily onerous.


My own experience is just one example of how the opportunities offered by interdisciplinary research are often obscured by the traditional structure of universities and academic departments. As I began my undergraduate education at Duke University, I planned to decide between two seemingly distinct career paths: I could use my love of science to make a positive impact on the world with a career in medical research, or turn my lifelong propensity for mathematics into a career. I also wanted to take full advantage of my University experience by simultaneously pursuing my passions for sports writing and philosophy, making it even harder to focus on making a seemingly life-changing decision.


Plagued by indecision and seeing no way to merge these varied interests, I tried to keep my options open as long as possible. I majored in Mathematics (i.e. my degree was a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics) while also following the pre-medicine track, leading to a minor in Chemistry (for those outside of North America, “minors” represent one’s “secondary” discipline, and typically involve about half of the course requirements of a major) . Meanwhile, I followed my passion for philosophy with another minor, while also pursuing my love for sports writing at the Duke Chronicle, becoming the paper’s sports section first ever Online Editor. Arguably, this caused me to take on more than I could reasonably be expected to handle, but my interests showed no signs of narrowing, so I engaged in a fragile balancing act for my first three years of school.


I likely would have continued on aimlessly in this fashion were it not for a few happy accidents. First, I had a wonderful Professor (for a differential equations course) who took an interest in me and exposed me to her research in mathematical biology. I was instantly intrigued by what seemed to be an ideal synthesis of my mathematical skills and my interest in the more applied sciences, and she recommended me for a summer research program in the field at Duke. There, in a second piece of good luck, I was paired with an advisor whose research sits in the more specific field of computational neuroscience.


If ever a lightbulb went off in my head, this was the moment. The brain always fascinated me, not just from the scientific perspective, but also the philosophical (to this day, I will say the best course I every took was “Philosophy of the Mind”). And while I was always skilled in mathematics, the further I advanced in my major the less I saw a future as a “mathematician”, since proving theorems interested me far less than using mathematics to solve real-world problems. And if that problem was understanding the brain, I was all-in.


From there, the pieces fell into place. My advisor for that summer research project became my mentor, guiding me through the process of applying for graduate school and highlighting programs where I could pursue computational neuroscience. Largely thanks to him I ended up at the University of Michigan, where their designated “Applied and Interdisciplinary” program facilitated my continuing neuroscience education. After a long, six-year journey to my Ph.D., I finally knew my path: to use mathematics as a tool to better understand the brain and have a direct impact on the lives of patients.


Hopefully many of you can take solace in the happy ending to my story. But I expect you also noticed how much chance was involved in my success. Had I had a different professor for differential equations, or even had a different advisor for my summer research project, I might never have known that computational neuroscience existed. When you factor in the additional challenges I faced in grad school , it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that finding one’s way to interdisciplinary research is excessively difficult.


We can’t leave the fate of the next generation of interdisciplinary researchers up to chance. It isn’t the responsibility of individual professors to advertise their own interdisciplinary projects; universities should be emphasizing these opportunities as much as they do more traditional research trajectories. Perhaps more importantly, interdisciplinary research needs a more “official” place in academia, especially in graduate programs. There is enough pressure on graduate students without leaving them feeling out on a limb and isolated in a department or program in which their interdisciplinary research may not seem to entirely fit.


In the interdisciplinary future I dream of, an undergraduate with my wide-ranging interests wouldn’t feel pressured to choose a single path as they begin their secondary education. Instead, the opportunities to merge these varied interests into an interdisciplinary pursuit will be clear and obvious from the start. Until that future is a reality, it’s up to us to continue shouting the about the importance and value of interdisciplinary research from the proverbial rooftops!