Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

What is required for successful interdisciplinary working?

Posted by Athene Donald on August 26, 2010

Yesterday I cycled over to the Addenbrookes Site for a meeting with Maria Spillantini of the Brain Repair Unit. She is particularly interested in Parkinson’s Disease, and we were discussing the nature of protein aggregation in Lewy Bodies – abnormal filamentous deposits. In disease, these are located in some nerve cells which are believed to degenerate as a result. Alpha-synuclein is the major component of the Lewy Bodies and the filaments do not stain with Congo Red, unlike the typical amyloid fibrils of diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.  To what extent my physicist’s approach to such protein aggregation may be helpful in unraveling the make-up of the Lewy Bodies is what we were discussing: they have complex morphologies, with a clear central region which stains differently (and is clearly visible in transmission electron micrographs too) from the outer regions, but a detailed understanding of what these different regions are or why they form is lacking.  It was a fascinating discussion and we explored possible ways to take the work further.

Once back in my office I was trying to type up my notes when I realized how many basic facts about the deposits, their location and what is known about the relevant pathways I had neglected to ask.   These weren’t research-type questions; they were probably ‘Parkinson’s Disease 101’ type questions, but my education had not included exposure to that material. And this exemplifies a well-known problem in trying to tackle interdisciplinary research. Sometimes it is jargon or nomenclature one lacks knowledge of, sometimes as in this case it is simply basic facts, but there is always a large amount of groundwork to do for truly interdisciplinary collaborations to take off.  It takes time and effort to forge good collaborations and to learn sufficient background to interpret what the other party is saying.

Some years ago I attended a meeting at the Royal Society discussing how best to prepare for interdisciplinary working. The question was asked was it preferable to be educated in a specialist subject (physics, zoology etc), or should one be educated at undergraduate level in a little bit of all the subjects, so that one was ‘interdisciplinary’, or perhaps better ‘multidisciplinary’ from the start of one’s  higher education? The consensus then, and I would still agree with it, was that it was better to be thoroughly and rigorously trained in a single subject, to become an expert in it, and then to learn what one needs to interact with other disciplines as required later – by which time you know what topics you need to cover. From my own past work on food, which exposed me to food scientists and their degree courses, I think it is clear that for many of them did not have the tools to address some fundamental questions because they were necessarily in the jack-of-all trades mould. This approach is very useful for some situations, and may certainly prepare food science graduates for work in their industry, but it does not necessarily facilitate tackling novel research.


3 Responses to “What is required for successful interdisciplinary working?”

  1. Becky said

    I think there may be many ways of doing successful interdisciplinary science, and it may be different depending on the field. Here’s an opinion piece by Sean Eddy on “antedisciplinary science”, which I thought was terrific:

    and here are my thoughts about it:

  2. Becky said

    Oh yes, and you may be interested in this as well:

    thanks for an interesting blog, by the way!

    • Becky, glad you like the blog. I don’t think we are that far apart – nor do I disagree with much of what Sean Eddy said. I will just respond briefly here, because I think some of these ideas really require a post of their own to develop properly. The idea of team science may indeed be appropriate for certain sorts of problems, and places like Janelia Farm are presumably the sort of effort that was had in mind. Fine if you can throw lots of money and time at it, not very effective or desirable for most of us beavering away in universities. Nevertheless, I don’t think I can do everything by myself, maybe Howard Berg can. What I enjoy are two- or three-way collaborations where sufficient time is put into learning each other’s viewpoints and language but we each still have a speciality. Hardly a team requiring a new organizational model, just goodwill, enthusiasm, trust, time and getting on well together.

      Working with biologists has undoubtedly taught me a lot, not just about the science but about the different mindsets that different disciplines possess. And as one absorbs some of that maybe one does turn into a sui generis new kind of scientist. I’m not sure, and to some extent I don’t care. However I do totally agree with you about the problem of what one then terms oneself. I have always used the phrase ‘biological physics’ not biophysics to describe what I do, because within the UK at least, biophysics seems to me to be much more akin to either (electro)physiology – as in the original work of Andrew Huxley for instance – or structural biology/biochemistry. Neither description seems to fit the sort of thing that I do, which is most definitely starting from a physicist’s position but trying to address a biological question rather than a more traditional physics one that might relate to a semiconductor, spintronics or whatever.

      Finally, I totally agree with your comments in your second blog post concerning referees. The peer review process in the UK I think is generally agreed to disadvantage interdisciplinary science and to favour the less adventurous stuff that is seen as mainstream. But when we moan at the funders the response is always ‘but you, the community, are the referees’ , and that is of course true. Where the funders do have a responsibility they may or may not always fullfill is choosing referees who are, shall we say, broadminded.

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