A theoretical chemist and a biochemist walk into a bar. They both speak the same language, yet it’s difficult for them to have a conversation about each other’s research. They’re both intelligent, educated scientists who have at least a basic understanding of the other’s field, so what’s the problem?
The first post from the ScIU blog asked the question: what is science really? The answer: it’s broad and complicated, but science can roughly be separated into “basic” and “applied” sciences, and both encompass many disciplines, such as chemistry, astronomy, and psychology.
But even these disciplines themselves are quite broad. For example, there are numerous subdivisions under the field of “chemistry”. While some chemists specialize in creating novel molecules (synthetic chemists), others pursue challenges in biologically relevant chemistry (biochemists), and still others use computational models to study the fundamental forces that explain chemical interactions (theoretical chemists). There are many other sub-disciplines (which are disciplines in their own right) under the “chemistry” umbrella as well, each with their own particular ensemble of jargon.
Each of these disciplines brings a unique perspective to the broader scientific community, but it is sometimes challenging for one researcher to discuss the impact of their work with someone from a different discipline. Hence, the theoretical chemist and biochemist may have communication difficulties unless they carefully rephrase their language and avoid discipline-specific jargon. Working to make their research accessible to a broader audience is one way in which communication between colleagues in different fields can also be improved.
If the two chemists can overcome this difficulty, they can combine their expertise and even push their research in exciting new directions that are not constrained by the boundaries of their respective specializations. This is the nature of interdisciplinary science – to combine knowledge and expertise from different disciplines and branch out beyond the traditional barriers of each separate discipline.
As an example at Indiana University, Amanda Le Sueur, who graduated with her doctorate earlier this month for her work in the Thielges lab, has used a combination of inorganic, biological, and physical chemistry (with a dash of analytical chemistry too!) to study the site where copper binds to plastocyanin – a protein involved in photosynthesis. By combining her experience across these disciplines, she was able to characterize two states of plastocyanin (oxidized and reduced) which are difficult to compare using solely traditional biochemical or biophysical methods.
Of course, to perform a given task outside of a researcher’s primary area of expertise, working with an experienced collaborator might be much more effective than stretching one’s focus across too many disciplines. Luckily, many researchers are happy to collaborate and share their expertise. In the case of Amanda Le Sueur, computational chemists in the Baik lab (formerly at IU) provided another complementary perspective for her research, and their collaboration saved her the trouble of becoming an expert in yet another field.
Naturally, interdisciplinary science is not limited to different types of chemists! IU is fortunate to have multiple programs for interdisciplinary research and numerous collaborations among its professors. In one collaboration, honored with the Outstanding Collaborative Faculty Research Award at IU, professors Dolinsky, Gibson, and Hangarter are part of a unique effort which combines science and music to engage the public in the appreciation of plants. Together, Margaret Dolinsky and Roger Hangarter put together an exhibit, as seen in this online video, which shows their creation of art in living leaves.
Just because a scientist is categorized into a major field of expertise doesn’t necessarily mean he or she works exclusively within the confines of a single discipline. Many scientists recognize the power of branching out – either by collaboration, or by a little time studying something different – in order to move towards new frontiers of knowledge in the sciences. Interdisciplinary science is wrought with challenges, but it also engenders some of the richest and most intriguing research to the scientific community.