That popular phrase on a T-shirt is being taken to a whole new level in higher education these days, as experts in a variety of fields increasingly must work together to address some of society's biggest challenges, from a warming planet to cancer.
But how do scientists from different disciplines and institutions collaborate? How do they work together to incorporate the distinct perspectives, languages and research styles of their fields?
“When scientists from different disciplines say 'We work together,' we want to know what that means,” says Steve Fifield, associate policy scientist at the University of Delaware.
Fifield, who is affiliated with the Delaware Education Research and Development Center at UD, is leading research to uncover how scientists from different disciplines form working relationships. The two-year project is funded by a $197,300 grant from the National Science Foundation's Innovation and Organizational Sciences program.
The findings will shed light on scientific collaboration--a process about which little is known, but much is expected.
“Agencies such as the National Science Foundation have deemed large-scale interdisciplinary research projects critical to U.S. innovation and competitiveness,” Fifield notes. “Yet there have been few studies of how scientists actually bridge disciplinary boundaries. There's no 'how-to' for it--at least not yet,” he says, smiling.
Fifield's research team includes co-investigators Regina Smardon, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, and Karl Steiner, associate director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute, along with postdoctoral researcher Katherine McGurn Centellas and graduate research assistant Jennifer Koester.
Two emerging research centers at UD are the focus of the study. The Center for Translational Cancer Research involves individuals from UD, Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children/Nemours, Christiana Care Health System/Helen F. Graham Cancer Center, and the Delaware Biotechnology Institute. The center, under the direction of Mary C. Farach-Carson, professor of biological sciences, seeks to establish a pipeline for developing translational cancer researchers and clinicians, spanning the undergraduate to postgraduate levels, and to build teams of clinicians, biologists and engineers, chemists and computer scientists to attack cancer-related problems.
The Center for Critical Zone Research, led by Donald Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences, aims to develop a world-class, leading-edge research capability focusing on the Earth's “critical zone”--the life-sustaining environment from the treetops to the groundwater where complex interactions of rock, soil, water, air and living organisms occur. Interfacial chemistry, bionanotechnology, and environmental genomics are the center's primary research areas.
The project team has been busy interviewing researchers affiliated with the centers and observing them in labs, seminars, even tumor clinics, as well as social settings, such as monthly get-togethers at Grotto's Pizza.
“We're studying 'participation customs'--how groups of people interact,” Centellas says. An anthropologist with a background in biology, she also has significant international experience, studying the organizational structure and dynamics of research centers in Bolivia.
“Scientists come trained in a particular way according to their discipline,” she notes. “Each group comes with a different vocabulary. How does one group learn to communicate with another? How do people discuss problems and form collegial relationships? How does work get assigned--is it by expertise, by technical facility, by the availability of a grad student? We're getting into the nuts and bolts of people coming together,” she says.
Koester, a master's student in sociology, is observing researchers to see if their collaboration is static or dynamic.
“Are people actively involved in communicating with one another, dividing up tasks, or is it done mostly at a distance, or without much interaction?” she says. “That gives us a lot of insight into how transformative the process is.”
Koester eventually wants to become a professor herself, leading research projects and teaching students in social science.
Although the project only began last fall, the team already has several preliminary findings and will present their results at the American Sociological Society's annual meeting in August.
“We've discovered that individuals can find themselves narrowing back to a niche specialization when doing collaborative research,” Fifield says. “Thus, interdisciplinary research may tend to move people back to their core expertise.”
The scientists also have noticed differences in culture between academics doing cancer research versus clinicians (medical doctors) who want to pursue cancer research in academia. Some meetings begin at Christiana Hospital at 7 a.m., which is before the workday starts for many university researchers.
“It's a time-use issue--in how you think about what an hour is worth,” Centellas says. “People may need to modify certain behaviors to become part of a group.”
By the end of the two-year project, the team will better understand the kinds of choices and strategies that help researchers to collaborate--how people manage to achieve it, and what gets in the way. The research may not result in a “how-to” list, Fifield says, but the team will be able to offer take-away messages and tips.
“Right now, the processes of interdisciplinary research get black-boxed. They remain a bit of a mystery. We may be able to unpack that a bit,” he notes.
Tracey Bryant | newswise
The personality factor: How to foster the sharing of research data
06.09.2017 | ZBW – Leibniz-Informationszentrum Wirtschaft
Europe’s Demographic Future. Where the Regions Are Heading after a Decade of Crises
10.08.2017 | Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung
Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.
A warming planet
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
22.09.2017 | Life Sciences
22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering
22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy