Interdisciplinary sciences flourish

As developments in scientific research demand more interdisciplinary collaboration, Yale is working on creating new courses and programs that integrate science and sometimes social science disciplines in order to prepare researchers and students for tackling those issues where flexibility, not just specialization, can determine a researcher’s success.

The need for interdisciplinary education in the sciences has been felt keenly in recent years because students often limit themselves to a single field without gaining the necessary skill sets to tackle wider problems in the sciences, faculty and administrators said. Yale is trying to address this problem in the graduate and professional schools by introducing new interdepartmental programs and research initiatives, but some students said more can still be done to integrate the sciences at the undergraduate level.

Yale Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said Yale’s efforts to break down barriers between science disciplines have been slow, but they are in line with efforts at other top research institutions, including Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University.

“There’s a void of issues not addressed, because interdisciplinary research requires people of diverse academic interests to interact,” Alpern said. “Our progress is slow, but that’s more reflective of a general trend than a reflection on Yale.”

Computational biology is a good example of a subject area that has been limited by the lack of researchers with an interdisciplinary science education, Alpern said, because it requires sophisticated math skills that most biologists lack, while mathematicians who have the skills to tackle these problems are generally not interested in biology.

He said the best way to advance interdisciplinary research is to train students in areas that interface between two or more disciplines and to create interest and incentives for students to engage in interdisciplinary research. While research between disciplines often yields valuable solutions to social problems, Alpern said, it can come at the expense of engaging in cutting-edge studies within their disciplines.

“People want to make meaningful contributions and everyone wants to be cutting edge, and unfortunately, interdisciplinary studies don’t always allow for that,” Alpern said.

But some areas of science lend themselves more easily to interdisciplinary study than others, professors said. Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, said environmental science — which is itself interdisciplinary — fits particularly well with business and societal interests, making it easier to bring the field in touch with programs in the humanities.

“The challenges our graduates face in environmental management are inherently interdisciplinary, so we work hard to bring an interdisciplinary approach to our students,” Speth said. “The hardest area to break down the disciplinary approach is in scientific research, where a high degree of specialization exists.”

The environment school has partnered with a number of other schools at Yale — including the School of Management, the Law School and the School of Epidemiology and Public Health — to bridge the gap between strict research science and other disciplines. Currently, SOM and the environment school offer a joint-degree program in business and the environment, which puts environmental management in a business perspective and examines ways in which economic incentives might be used to meet growing environmental challenges. The program is run through the Center for Business and Environment at Yale, which also sponsors speakers, workshops and a case study series on the relationship between business and environment.

Physics professor Peter Parker said the hiring of faculty with appointments in multiple departments has facilitated the integration of sciences on the undergraduate level. He said the physics department already actively collaborates with several different programs in the sciences, particularly astronomy, biophysics, applied science and electrical engineering.

At the undergraduate level, professors said, the University offers several courses that merge different scientific disciplines. This year Yale offered a freshman seminar titled “Introduction to Nanoscience,” which introduced students to applications of nanotechnology in multiple disciplines. While the seminar is officially listed under the electrical engineering department, the course covers electric and mechanical properties, physical engineering and the biological applications of nanotechnology.

Professor Mark Reed, who teaches the seminar, said he is not surprised that Yale’s approach to science is becoming more interdisciplinary because it reflects a trend in nearly all institutions that engage in scientific research.

Alpern said the Yale School of Medicine is making slow progress in the integration of medical sciences by introducing more interdepartmental programs that draw faculty from a number of departments at the school. Currently, he said, there are programs in vascular biology and transplantation, stem cell biology, human translational immunology and cellular neuroscience. The interdepartmental programs address specific problems that transcend the discrete subject divisions in academic medicine, Alpern said.

“Stem cell research provides results that can be applied to many different parts of medicine,” he said. “Neurology also can help provide treatments and cures for spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but each of those conditions requires knowledge of a different combination of disciplines in order to address it.”

Josh Goodstein ’07, who said he chose the cognitive science major because of its interdisciplinary nature, said learning about fields outside of one’s area of focus facilitates effective communication between people from different disciplines.

“It’s important to figure out you’re speaking the same language,” Goodstein said. “People in different departments have to talk to each other, but they’re not answering the same questions and not using the same vocabulary, so it’s hard.”

Eric Bank ’08, also a cognitive science major, said that although he plans on going to medical school after graduation, an interdisciplinary education in his undergraduate career will help in the future.

“There’s a benefit of really directly encouraging dialogue and input from specialists in different areas,” Bank said.

—Karan Arakotaram contributed reporting.

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