“If specialization may be advantageous for increasing our productiveness in a given field , over-specialization, on the other hand, may develop one-sidedness; it may stunt our growth as men and citizens; even for persons engaged in scientific pursuits it may render impossible the attainment of true and general philosophic conceptions”
Leo Baekeland: The danger of overspecialization. Science (1907)
The Renaissance of Interdisciplinary Education
I grew up in a family of artists – inhaling turpentine, cigarette smoke and intoxicating bohemian ideas untethered from the harsh realities of post-soviet era Eastern European life. From an early age I was immersed in discussions about Kandinsky’s theory of color, the revolutionary power of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and the iconoclastic writings of Solzhenitsyn. At six I was sent to a music school to study piano, music theory, choreography and voice. On weekends I took art classes at a university prep school. With so much art around me and inside of me, I never thought that I would end up choosing science for a career. But here I am a couple of decades later – with a PhD in Materials Science – doing a postdoc in a Metabolic Engineering lab. My lifestyle is as far from bohemian as one can imagine: my daily routine consists of meticulous tasks where any deviation from the protocol will likely result in a failed experiment. Precisely calibrated pipettes, graduated cylinders and analytical scales – there is no place for impulse or improvisation in the lab.
In this highly ambitious and competitive field, it's not enough to simply be smart. You have to dedicate all your time and energy to what you are doing to become a successful scientist. Torn between the desire to be good at what I do and having a life and interests outside of my job, I find myself asking two contradictory questions: 1) Should I be reading scientific literature instead of Dostoyevsky to gain a competitive edge in my chosen career? Or: 2) Would I be better off had I stayed out of science altogether and devoted myself to my creative passions, leaving the trade to those who love the tedium of it?
I think I am not alone in this: so many young people come into graduate programs with diverse interests and unconventional approaches only to be funneled into a narrow specialization track. As much as focus is needed to achieve mastery in a field, it kills the ability to see broad patterns across areas of knowledge and come up with truly creative ideas. In today’s world, few problems can be isolated as a single-field issue and therefore require an interdisciplinary approach.
I was lucky enough to experience graduate education that considered the changing nature of science and the need for a new approach to learning. I joined the BioFrontiers Institute’s pioneering initiative to nurture scientists who are well-versed in multiple fields, can communicate well with colleagues from other departments, recognize the strengths and opportunities in other disciplines, and come up with creative solutions to complex real-world problems. This graduate program – Interdisciplinary Quantitative Biology, or IQ Bio – brought together physicists, chemists, biologists, ecologists, computer scientists and mathematicians into one classroom and encouraged them to learn from each other, to develop a common vocabulary that would allow them to work as a team and bring these skills into the workplace.
From my brief foray into the industry job market, I learned how highly sought-after those skills are in biotechnology where the boundaries of specialization are becoming increasingly blurry and obsolete. Employers today are looking for people who can think creatively, work in diverse collaborative teams and solve problems that transcend the boundaries of traditional industry lines (Ryan 2016). Economists have pointed out that one of the principal costs of the division of labor is the cost of coordinating the efforts of highly specialized workers, which could be significantly alleviated if they were skilled in interdisciplinary collaboration and able to better understand the challenges and limitations of their colleagues from other teams (Becker 1992).
Another unique benefit of interdisciplinarity is the cross-pollination of ideas and bringing fresh perspectives into a field. While an established scientific discipline provides the benefit of fostering community and culture, maintaining research standards and building upon the continuity of intellectual excellence, it can lead to recycling of ideas and incremental progress, leading to intellectual stagnation (Casadevall and Fang 2014). Break-through innovation requires paradigm shifts that cannot be conjured up by someone whose scientific vision has been shaped by the very field in need of a revolution. As an example, it is often thought that Louis Pasteur was able to transform microbiology and immunology through his work on infectious disease prevention because he came from a chemistry background (Harman 2013).
Being in tune with the developments in other fields also helps place own research into the context of broader applications. For instance, DNA data storage is becoming a new hot thing in the field of computer science. Who would have thought that biology could have anything to do with hard drives? Turns out that biological molecules, such as DNA, have a much denser energy storage capacity than silicon-based semiconductors, operating on a quaternary instead of a binary system. DNA is quite stable and durable and possesses a unique ability for self-replication (when placed in the context of a living system), positioning it to become the preferred way of storing and transferring information (Ceze 2019). I can already picture a spy movie where important information is encoded into a virus – only instead of the flu, you get “infected” with encrypted data.
To fully utilize this potential capability, we need biologists and computer scientists to work together. These kinds of problems require unconventional thinkers. The benefit of interdisciplinary education is that it trains scientists early on to not feel confined by the possibilities of their own field and to stretch their minds to come up with innovative approaches. Janina Misiewicz thinks a broad curriculum helps students become better critical thinkers and learn to utilize the full range of their intellectual capabilities. A study conducted way back in 1988 found that interdisciplinary students are more likely to develop curiosity for learning, creativity and originality in thought processes, and are better able to integrate traditional beliefs with current ideas (Newell and Davis 1988).
I would argue that art plays as much of a role in developing out-of-the-box thinking and that we should be advocating for putting (A) in STE(A)M. Unfortunately, truly interdisciplinary education that includes arts and humanities along with the sciences is falling out of favor. Funding is being cut from school art programs and the rigorous curriculum of STEM education leaves no room for artistic exploration. Creativity in research is also regarded as frivolous. With the pressure to achieve specific aims described in grant proposals, to fit a study within a journal scope, no one has the time or resources to try something truly experimental or take a bold stance against the established consensus, as is welcomed in artistic circles.
Should we be concerned about the shortage of creative scientists as much as we are concerned about the mass extinction of species? I think so. Without a flexible approach to science’s rigid methodological framework, no breakthrough discoveries can be made. It took a leap of imagination to envision a world not ruled by Newtonian physics, but by the principles of relativity. Is it by coincidence that Einstein played the violin, that Feynman wrote poetry? To see the beauty in chaos, patterns in natural phenomena is a scientist’s gift as much as an artist’s. Intellectual courage, just as artistic exploration, should be stimulated and trained like a muscle. Perhaps the flexibility of thinking gained in the process will inspire new breakthrough discoveries, just as the work at the intersection of different sciences is building a new world for us as we speak.
Baekeland, L.H., 1907. “The danger of overspecialization”. Science, 25(648), pp.845-854. Science 31 May 1907: Vol. 25, Issue 648, pp. 845-854. DOI: 10.1126/science.25.648.845
Becker, Gary S., and Kevin M. Murphy. "The division of labor, coordination costs, and knowledge." The Quarterly Journal of Economics 107.4 (1992): 1137-1160. doi: 10.2307/2118383
Casadevall, Arturo, and Ferric C. Fang. "Specialized science." American Society for Microbiology (2014): 1355-1360. DOI: 10.1128/IAI.01530-13
Ceze, Luis, Jeff Nivala, and Karin Strauss. "Molecular digital data storage using DNA." Nature Reviews Genetics 20.8 (2019): 456-466.
Cumbers, John and Aishani Aatresh. “DNA Data Storage Is About To Go Viral”. SynBioBeta: August 11, 2019. https://synbiobeta.com/dna-data-storage-is-about-to-go-viral/
Harman O, Dietrich MR. Outsider scientists: routes to innovation in biology. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2013.
Misiewicz, Janina. 28 the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity. Rebus Community.
Newell, William H., and Allen J. Davis. "Education for citizenship: The role of progressive education and interdisciplinary studies." Innovative Higher Education 13.1 (1988): 27-37.
Ryan, Liz. “12 Qualities Employers Look for When They’re Hiring.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, Mar. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. http://www.forbes.com/sites/lizryan/2016/03/02/12-qualities-employers-look-for-when-theyre-hiring/2/#599c7d101ced