Breaking the Silo: The Rising Trend (and Challenges) of Multidisciplinary Research

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The days of the lone scientist working in isolation trying to solve the mysteries of the universe are long gone – if they ever existed in the first place. The vast majority of good science nowadays stems from collaboration and – oftentimes – collaboration between researchers from different fields.

Many of today’s challenges are complex and cannot be addressed by a single discipline. Bringing together experts from different fields leads to a more holistic understanding of a problem and fosters innovative solutions. Collaborative efforts allow researchers to learn from one another, expanding their skill sets and knowledge base. For instance, a biologist might deploy computational techniques, leading to the development of new bioinformatics tools.

In fact, as a panel discussion on the topic of interdisciplinary research at this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) pointed out, medical research and mathematics / computer science are a particularly well-suited combination.

A Bit of Everything

The panel featured laureates Leslie G. Valiant (IMU Abacus Medal, ACM A.M. Turing Award), Efim Zelmanov (Fields Medal), and Louis Joseph Ignarro (Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine), as well as Stefan H. E. Kaufmann, Scientific Chairperson Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. After a brief introduction by moderator Rebecca Wade (Center for Molecular Biology, Heidelberg University), each panel member expressed their view of interdisciplinary research.

The panel aimed to discuss interdisciplinarity in general, but in particular aimed to have a look at the synergies that have emerged at the interface of mathematics, computer science, and the sciences as well as explore their potential.

The first important thing to consider when working interdisciplinarily, said Valiant, is to educate yourself on the disciplines you want to collaborate with.

“I spent a lot of time talking to psychologists and going to seminars trying to understand what they were thinking before I was ready to say what I was thinking. This is how I view synergies.”

The panel on “Mathematics, Computer Science and the Sciences” at the 10th HLF. Image credits: HLFF.

Zelmanov mentioned that it is important not to lock oneself in a corner. Everything can be applied to something, even though it is not always clear how.

“I don’t believe that there is pure mathematics and applied mathematics. Finite fields invented by Galois waited 150 years until they became applied. In general, computer science and AI is the best thing that happened to mathematics in the past 50 years. Both grew out of mathematics. Thanks to this, mathematics enjoys a support in society that I have never seen in history.”

Kaufmann mentioned a specific application in immunology: We now know that the human microbiome, which has as many cells as we have human cells, plays a key role in human health. We have a lot of data on this microbiome. However, analyzing this data is still proving challenging, especially when it comes to figuring out the function of these different microbes. This suggests that computer science can play a big role in this field.

“That’s a field where I think we can learn a lot, and we can combine this with vaccine design. We’re also looking for the “big challenges” in vaccines – HIV, malaria, tuberculosis – and that can only work if the immune system is fine-tuned. So you have to understand how all the cells are functioning,” said Kaufman.

Ignarro added that as a pharmacologist, he also sees the enormous potential of using big data and AI to design better, safer drugs. Indeed, there are few fields (if any) that have neither mathematics nor computer science embedded into them. But how to put interdisciplinarity into practice is not all that straightforward.

Linking Different Disciplines

There are two main approaches, although the difference between them is not always black and white. The first, emphasized by Ignarro, is to have a group where everyone is an expert in one particular field. You have a microbiologist, an immunologist, a computer scientist, and so on. Then, everyone needs to be able to communicate what they are doing and what they need. This is challenging and requires substantial effort from all sides.

The other approach, put forth by Valiant, is to have multidisciplinary research in “one brain.” He mentions the example of biochemist John Kendrew, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1962 for his work on proteins. In order to complete his work on proteins, Kendrew had to become one of the world’s first programmers.

At any rate, the first requirement for interdisciplinary collaboration is to have a firm understanding of a specific field. Zelmanov emphasizes that if you truly are an expert in one field, you can move from one application to the next because you can understand how to apply your field to different challenges. Of course, in order to be able to accomplish this, you will need to grasp the fundamentals of the discipline you are trying to work in.

The Private Sector Is Also Increasingly Multidisciplinary

One example discussed in the panel was AlphaFold, a groundbreaking computational tool that can predict the three-dimensional structure of proteins based solely on their amino acid sequences. Understanding the 3D structure of proteins is vital because it largely determines their function in the body, and this information can have profound implications for biology, medicine, and many other fields. This prediction of proteins has long been a challenge in biology, and there has been a lot of work on it with slow progress. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a tool came out that was able to produce reliable predictions. Of course, it did not actually come out of nowhere, but rather from decades of incremental work that reached a tipping point.

The trend toward interdisciplinarity has not gone unnoticed by universities, although interdisciplinarity is still rather the exception than the norm

However, for researchers looking to work on interdisciplinary challenges, universities are not the only option.

AlphaFold was produced in the private sector, not by academia. It is a good example of innovation coming from private companies, and the panel emphasized that we can expect more of this in the future. Companies have the means to employ larger groups and use computational resources that are not generally available to academia. But this does not mean that universities will be swept out. “What [the private sector is] good at is different than what universities are good at. So there will be room for everyone,” says Valiant.

The important part for universities is to produce “well-rounded specialists,” Zelmanov adds. “The mathematicians who are also exposed to chemistry, biology, and physics – and chemists who have rigorous and good mathematical training.”

But this is easier said than done.

Multidisciplinarity Brings Multi-Challenges

Efim Zelmanov. Image credits: HLFF.

However, working in interdisciplinary research brings additional challenges and difficulties, something that some young researchers seem to be keenly aware of.

If you are pursuing a degree in a good university, especially in a competitive field like pharmacology, you already have your hands full, Ignarro emphasizes. Looking back on his career, the Nobel Laureate thinks there is just no way he could have also specialized in mathematics and computer science.

Even if you do find the right person and somehow train them in multiple disciplines, there are practical difficulties, particularly for young researchers, says Valiant. “It is very high risk to try to be very good at more than one thing, and it is very difficult.” People can praise interdisciplinary work all they want, but for someone just starting out in research, it does not mean very much, Valiant added. The laureate observed that it was only later in his career that he started branching out to other disciplines.

The fact that Valiant emphasized this is particularly telling. He has been awarded the IMU Abacus Medal, as well as the ACM A.M. Turing Award; he has published papers in the field of neuroscience and actively explores life sciences. It is very telling when even someone of his stature says that it is difficult for early-career researchers to branch out.

This fact did not escape the young researchers in the audience. At the Q&A section, several researchers pushed the panel for concrete answers. How does one gain support for multidisciplinarity? How do you split the time between your main discipline and the others?

There are no simple answers. Valiant reiterated that interdisciplinarity is “extremely difficult” in the earlier stages of one’s career. Ignarro agreed, saying that you have to “first focus on one thing,” and then, if possible, see if you can explore other disciplines.

There is increasing support for interdisciplinarity, but the transition into interdisciplinary research can be both exhilarating and intimidating.

Furthermore, there is increasing criticism aimed at universities that many would-be interdisciplinary projects are not that interdisciplinary after all, and are merely mimicking it. A scathing article published by Paul Griffiths, a University of Sydney professor, criticized universities for dismantling academic disciplines for administrative convenience, under the guise of interdisciplinarity.

No doubt, there is plenty of work to be done if we want to truly encourage researchers (especially young researchers) to “break the silo” of one single discipline. Despite the immense progress the interdisciplinary approach brings, it is essential to acknowledge that interdisciplinarity also presents unique challenges. Young researchers may feel the pressure to be proficient in multiple domains, a daunting task that requires both time and dedicated effort. Yet, it is essential to remember that true expertise in a single discipline can serve as a robust foundation, enabling one to branch out and collaborate effectively with experts from other fields.

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Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He is the co-founder of ZME Science, where he published over 2,000 articles. Andrei tries to blend two things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place -- one article at a time.

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