Making Interdisciplinary Research Actually Happen

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part commentary by Rana Dajani and a group of contributors who met as panelists in a session of the 2017 World Science Forum, held under the leadership of the Royal Scientific Research Support Fund, Jordan.

Many scientists talk about the concept of interdisciplinary research. But the question is, How many have actually worked in interdisciplinary research teams?

Interdisciplinary research is not multidisciplinary research. Interdisciplinary research is daring to go to the edges of disciplines and peeking over to the other side to meet in a new place to explore new questions, perspectives and realities.

Interdisciplinary research results in a synthesis of ingredients that were never mixed together before. This approach is very much needed since the challenges we face today—not the least of which is Covid-19—cannot be solved by one discipline alone.

In order to encourage such activity, funders, governments and universities need to provide support to the brave scientists who are going beyond their comfort zone and breaking new ground.

During the 2017 World Science Forum in Jordan, Princess Sumaya pointed out the importance of being inclusive, joining hands and creating teams to tackle local problems in Jordan. Those Jordanian researchers, in turn, could export solutions to the world, serve as a beacon of hope in the region and inspire future generations.

Building on the discussions in that forum, a group of us who participated want to share examples of how interdisciplinary research can be encouraged.

Sally Jordan, physics education, England

Education lays the foundation for interdisciplinary research. In England, I found the educational system to be very narrow, so when students leave school and commence their studies at universities, they are already considerably specialized. (The situation is better in Scotland.)

In contrast, my university, the Open University, has no entry qualifications, and students can choose to study for an “open degree” taking a range of modules across all faculties. This may have dangers on the labor market, however, because market research showed that students and employers want standard qualifications with standard names, such as a bachelor’s degree in physics.

To gain sufficient expertise in STEM subjects, university students are required to concentrate in courses on their primary subject. However, scientists and social scientists need to appreciate the work done by others, and avoid working in “silos.”

I am investigating demographic gaps in attainment in physics, and to do that I need my physics background to be able understand the difficulties faced by students, yet also use both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, some of which are beyond my own expertise. This involves working closely with statisticians and education researchers.

It is important to foster a mind-set from early on in education that researchers need to use a range of methodologies, some of which are less precise than the quantitative methodologies with which most scientists are familiar, and hence, learn to respect the work of social scientists.

Interdisciplinary collaboration involves crossing various disciplines or fields and integrating different ideas into cohesive thoughts that work in unison to accomplish a common goal.

Sally Jordan  
physics education, England

Interdisciplinary collaboration involves crossing various disciplines or fields and integrating different ideas into cohesive thoughts that work in unison to accomplish a common goal. One part of the solution may lie in training scientists to think more broadly early on, while they are still undergraduates.

That may be the key to training a generation of researchers with both interdisciplinary breadth and disciplinary depth.

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Interdisciplinary collaboration in graduate research allows for evolution of ideas and attaining a mixture of characteristics from various disciplines. Additionally, it deals with students’ individual differences and provides the ability to develop vital skills like communication and critical thinking. It is an effective tool that sparks enthusiasm for learning and creative solutions, provides more in-depth perspectives, and helps prepare students for careers in new and emerging fields.

Rana Dajani, molecular biologist, Jordan

As a molecular biologist, I collaborate with a medical anthropologist at Yale, Catherine Panter-Brick, studying the impact of trauma on biology and how such biological changes can be transmitted across generations. Such interdisciplinary studies can help understand the origins of mental health and mental illness. Eventually, such studies can and help inform and shape the development of programs to treat mental illness and provide psychosocial support to prevent emotional distress and mental illness.

Abeer Al Bawab, chemist, Jordan

Cultural heritage and historic preservation are also ripe for interdisciplinary collaboration. Microbiology and molecular biology are important to understand microbial degradation processes, for example. Advanced computer simulations can extrapolate physical data used to study the deterioration of structures like bridges, buildings and ships.

Likewise, interdisciplinary teams can develop new preservation methods, novel materials and procedures for stabilization and preservation of heritage materials, methods for extraction or neutralization of detrimental chemicals from artifacts.

Interdisciplinary teams of scientists can develop new materials for cleaning surfaces of heritage objects like stone and buildings, paintings and murals.

Abeer Al Bawab  
Chemist, University of Jordan

Scientists can develop new materials for cleaning of surfaces of heritage objects like stone and buildings, paintings and murals. Researchers can also look at the larger picture in understanding phenomena such as the connection between climate and deterioration of historic structures.

Ganmaa Davaasambuu, nutrition and public health, Mongolia

As Mongolia has emerged from many years of domination by its more powerful neighbors, it has been challenged to provide medical care and to create public health infrastructure. The Mongolian people are shifting rapidly from a culture of nomadic pastoralism to being involved in an urbanized, globalized economic system. Because the Mongolian situation has been so fluid, I had the good fortune to be thrown in with care-givers and researchers from widely disparate disciplines, and, because of my career-development needs, I have worked in institutions and with colleagues from all over the world, including the United States and Japan. I helped develop Mongolia’s capacity for dealing with public-health issues, in the process creating models for other countries.

I have been able to introduce medical students and researchers in Mongolia to the power of interdisciplinary work right at the start, before they have had a chance to become too over-specialized.

Rana Dajani:

We need to create teams who can work together and build equal partnerships across national borders, in addition to engaging scientists with the diaspora and establishing mentoring networks for early-career scientists. The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasized the opportunity and the urgency to build these bridges through forward looking interdisciplinary research.

Rana Dajani is a professor of molecular cell biology at the Hashemite University, in Jordan, and a visiting professor at the Jepson School of Leadership at the University of Richmond, in the United States. She is also president of the Society for the Advancement of Science and Technology in the Arab World.

Contributing authors include Abeer Al Bawab, University of Jordan; Sally Jordan, the Open University, England; Ganmaa Davaasambuu, Mongolia and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, United States; Nancy Hakooz, University of Jordan; Reem N. Bsaiso, Global Thinkers Forum; Lian Otay, gynecology, Jordan;  and Susana Frazao Pinheiro, University College London.


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