Now that we’ve had our class with Karen DePauw on interdisciplinarity, here is our first prompt. Please put your answer in the comments; you are welcome to reply to one another as well.

What is (in your opinion) interdisciplinary thinking, and what does it make you do? How does your view contrast with other potential views of interdisciplinarity?


  1. I think that acknowledging the fact that the environment we work in is interdisciplinary and cannot be accurately defined by one field is a first step. It opens up a large number of learning opportunities that perhaps would not be readily available to me otherwise. It also encourages a more collaborative environment and in the broader sense, makes my work relatable to a larger audience, all of which enhance professional development. I believe the term “interdisciplinary” can be perceived in different ways. For me, the coming together of different scientific disciplines is also interdisciplinary. In a broader sense of the word, it may encompass distinct fields, such as science and business or law for example.

  2. This Wednesday during the lecture at the Lyric Theater, Dr. Naomi Oreskes mentioned that when she decided to get an interdisciplinary degree, she thought she would be unemployed. However, she’s now working at Harvard. As Dean DePauw said in the conversation this week, I see there is a trend to become interdisciplinary among younger generations. There are people who view the established construction of disciplines as a wall which is sometimes hard to overcome. I have that feeling as well, but there is also moments when I feel there’s not so much disciplinary boundary. As an international student, I learn the idea of disciplines and inter-disciplines both from Western academic culture. When I entered college, it was right at the time when the idea of inter-disciplines were introduced to my culture. Because of this, I have been immersed in an education that focuses on interdisciplinary approaches rather than disciplines with clear boundaries.

    I was part of a singular focused sociology program during college, but I found that some impressive studies which are important to sociology come from other disciplines, such as anthropology, history, medicine and architecture. Furthermore, more than one professor has shared their experiences that if they have a sociological research question, the answers or methods more often than not come from other disciplines. I chose Science and Technology Studies, an interdisciplinary program because of my experience above.

    Sometimes I find it’s hard to explain the difference between inter-disciplines and multi-disciplines, especially when the issue involves a more established and official organization, such as a big company or a government. There are some people who view multi-disciplines as inter-disciplines, but I think they are different. Expertise in a specific discipline is a way for an organization to identify someone’s ability and there is little room for inter-disciplines. If inter-disciplinary research is like a “π” which contains two feet in different disciplines and a line across those disciplines as Dean. DePauw describes, multi-disciplines is like a “V” which also contains two feet and ending with a shared goal, but not really across different disciplines.

  3. In my opinion an interdisciplinary approach is essential for forming new ideas, solving problems that are not obvious and to address gaps in knowledge that are not addressed by traditional disciplines. While I have been considering interdisciplinary thinking I have developed the following specific thoughts that were not completely “obvious” on my first consideration of interdisciplinary:
    1. “Interdisciplinary” is a definition put on a thought process that has been present since the time of greek philosopy. Greek thinking involved consideration of nature, law, society and economy to develop modern day politics. However defining interdisciplinary could potentially lead to it becoming it’s own discipline, therefore impeding its core value. Awareness of this concept is important because true interdisciplinary thinking will address concepts that we don’t even know exist.
    2. Interdisciplinary is essential for the formation of new disciplines. The fields of bioengineering, nanoscience and politics have developed as a result of interdisciplinarians seeing a need and filling the gap in discipline by the fusion of others. In some ways we can see that interdisciplinary could be like a funnel, with true interdisciplinarians being filtered into specific disciplines as they are discovered. However, the process always needs a fresh batch of interdisciplinary thinkers at the top to refresh the pool.
    3. It is not enough to call yourself an “interdisciplinarian” if you have more than one specialty, even three or four if those specialties are compartmentalized. You need to be able to have cohesion between them. Make links and when you are thinking about a problem that is unrelated to your field(s) draw on the thought processes you would use to solve common problems within your field.
    4. Interdisciplinary involves more than one person or entity. There is a limit to the depth, breadth and quality of knowledge that one has. Involving others will open up different ways of thinking, new information and results in synergy of thought. However, it is not enough to just offer your views or knowledge. You have to be able to consider other thoughts deeply, apply the way you think and begin to think like the other people in the team. Think about something familiar in an unfamiliar way or the unfamiliar in a familiar way. It is also not enough to think to yourself; you need to speak up.
    5. Interdisciplinary should transcend fields of knowledge, and ideology. It should look something like: a theologist, scientist, economist and politician considering a topic that transcends their perceived knowledge base and is not addressed by any one discipline completely i.e. mass production of biologic therapies.
    6. It is OK if interdisciplinary thinking does not solve the problem it was set out to. It is common in industry to have a group of “experts” discussing how to reach a final goal or design a final product. However many useful and lucrative advances have come as “by-products” of the thought process. For example Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton developed touch screen technology while he was trying to develop a realistic electronic drumhead. He never considered that the technology would one day “be in everybody’s pocket”. (NPR interview)

    So what will the above points make me do? I will hold myself accountable. It is not enough for me to have rambled on in this blog. I need to act on it. I need to think it. I need to ask others about their opinions, way of thinking and knowledge. If they won’t offer it directly, I need to ask. I am going to challenge everyone in our class to offer your opinion, knowledge and explain the way you think. Individuals offering honest feedback will enable the group to think in an interdisciplinary way. It is not enough to think by ourselves, we have to communicate. We have to argue, and then we have to understand.

    Finally, how do my opinions above contrast to those of others? Probably some people would champion my opinion, and act on it. Some may disagree and offer their own opinion. Dean DePauw talked to us about “pie” and although I agree with her on some aspects I disagree with her on others. In my opinion “pie” should have more legs that are different colors, shapes and sizes to reflect the different knowledge bases or individuals they represent. The legs shouldn’t have a roof, rather a ladder going between to link the legs at all different points. They legs should be blurry – showing that thought processes are not defined rather able to be molded into a different shape, color or size as they evolve. Most importantly “pie” should be ever-changing, it should abide by the Darwinian theory to evolve as the needs of society change too. If it needs more legs it should evolve some, if it needs more sense it should develop eyes and ears. Being a living thing is important because “pie” needs sensibility, it needs to feel empathy, pain and hope. Honestly, if I had a choice on how people would react to my opinions I would choose for them to disagree. This is because if they agreed it would not change my thought process, rather I would just go around gloating at how brilliant my idea was and not consider the multiple ways an idea could fail or be improved on. So please, go ahead and disagree; I really want to hear, consider and mold through your opinion too.

  4. Interdisciplinary thinking is an approach to research and life that blends different fields and perspectives to create a more comprehensive view of a specific field and its implications in society. Instead of focusing solely on the depth and applications of a single field of study, researchers can employ interdisciplinary thinking to see how other fields can contribute and make research more effective. Different disciplines can join together to accomplish a common purpose. The in-class discussion brought up the example of a pharmaceutical company—to succeed, the company had to bring together elements of chemistry, biology, business, marketing, and other fields. Interdisciplinary thinking facilitates this kind of holistic approach in any field, allowing very specific projects to be placed within the larger context of society as a whole. In my research specifically, interdisciplinary thinking can help me plan both how to carry out my work and how to present it to the public. I do biology-focused research on traumatic brain injury, but collaboration with other disciplines should be a part of what I do. For example, I could use input from the fields of psychology and sociology to better understand the behavioral aspects and sociological connotations of traumatic brain injury, and experts in marketing and business could help me learn to successfully communicate my work. This type of holistic approach will give me the breadth necessary to be effective without abandoning the depth necessary to be excellent in my field.
    Interdisciplinary thinking pertains to individuals just as much as it relates to a larger organizational approach. While it is important for organizations to create an environment that fosters an interdisciplinary approach by creating opportunities for discussion and collaboration, true interdisciplinary thinking requires individual commitment. My view might contrast with others’ opinions regarding the role of the individual vs. the organization, but I think effective interdisciplinary thinking is more about a personal love for learning and openness to the possibilities around us than it is about an organizational structure of interdisciplinarity. As someone mentioned in the in-class discussion, interdisciplinary thinking could be seen as a throwback to the “Renaissance man” ideal of the early 20th century. Throughout history, the best thinkers and researchers have been those who were willing to “think outside the box” and learn from a variety of disciplines, regardless of whether their environments were conducive to this universal approach. Real interdisciplinarians are those who embrace breadth across disciplines while still pursuing depth in their own fields, looking beyond the importance of their personal area of expertise to see the possibilities of other perspectives—in Dean DePauw’s words, they choose to “see the unobvious.” This approach will help any field become more effective and successful in accomplishing its goals.

  5. Interdisciplinary thinking is taking work out of the narrow perspective of a single discipline and bridging the gap between disciplines, people, and perspectives to create more realistic and unique ideas. It breaks the artificial academic designations we call disciplines and forms a continuum that draws on different backgrounds, perspectives and applications. This ability to communicate from the big picture to the minute detail across disciplines is valuable in a world that is rapidly shrinking and bringing together people in way not previously possible. Interdisciplinary thinking is breaking down walls, so that lab spaces are continuous and encompass people of diverse abilities to better model the world.
    For me, interdisciplinary thinking means taking risks and seeing beyond a traditional STEM PhD. It means seeing value in others perspectives and investing the time to learn and incorporate those, so that it is not my work, but our work. It is learning to communicate across fields in a concise and effective way to help move teams forward in a project. It means risking doing non-traditional research that may not “fit” into a particular journal but has vision, value, and will contribute to bettering the world. It means instead of serving myself with my PhD, I choose to break barriers and open doors to serve generations to come.
    This is my perspective, but a single person cannot express interdisciplinarity. To truly understand interdisciplinarity, one must learn all the perspectives. And, this is impossible because interdisciplinarity is constantly evolving and infinite. One can gain an understanding or a sense of it, but there will never be a single definition. May we be lifelong learners.

  6. My view on interdisciplinarity seems to be a little more specific than Dean DePauw’s. While I agree interdisciplinarity involves more than one way of thinking, there is a stark difference between research that is interdisicplinary and research that is translational. Interdisicplinarity is the incorporation of different disciplines, while translational research is the idea of “bench to bedside”, or keeping the overall impact of research in mind during all stages of its development. For example, in my research I use knowledge gained from developmental biology in hopes of triggering nerogenesis in the brain. This isn’t really interdisciplinary since it is still heavily focused on neuroscience, but it can be extremely translational if you think of its potential implications for brain injury. Essentially, you can have research that is related to the public perception as a whole that is not interdisciplinary at all.
    I also liked when Sophie brought up the idea of environments facilitating interdisciplinary research. Compared at other school’s, VT is unique in that we discourage fostering an environment of competition between disciplines. This allows both PIs and students to present their research in progress to entirely different departments without having to worry about their ideas being stolen. I also love the environment we have here because I know I can go down the hall and ask anyone a question and they’ll answer it without even wanting to know why I’m asking. The amount of trust people have in each other truly facilitates the interdisciplinary environment that is being established here.

  7. This is going to sound way more pessimistic than it really is, and for that I apologize. Because I really like interdisciplinary and what it can bring to the table. I’m in an interdisciplinary field, after all. I practice and encourage interdisciplinary nearly every day (or at least I try).

    However (cue pessimism), interdisciplinary is not a new thing. It is as old as dirt, and currently, much like the word “innovation,” very much feels like a buzzword that large institutions (universities, companies, NGOs) like to use to sound like they are pioneering the Next Big Thing. This is because interdisciplinary was the way of things for a very, very long time… but institutions like the ones mentioned above, have shifted their focus to a sort of hyper-specialization in an attempt to deal with the sheer amount of information and skills necessary in today’s world to do things. This is not necessarily a bad thing… no single person can make a thing even so simple as a pencil. One would need to harvest the trees, mill the wood, mine the ore and graphite, harvest the sap for the eraser, build the factory to put it all together. No one person can do that, but a series of specialized people can. This has shifted our focus away from the benefits of individuals who can cross those institutional boundaries and the benefits that they bring to (not just) science, but other areas as well.

    Interdisciplinarity forces people to consider more than just the techniques of their trade, but also the downstream issues that might affect their product, or the upstream reasons that allow their product to exist in the first place. It shifts the focus away from the object to the people who interact with it, and perhaps gives us a better lens through which to view that object, and perhaps improve upon it with help from a wider range of individuals.

    We just have to realize that this is not a new idea… we are merely returning to an old way of doing things and putting it into a new context.

  8. Interdisciplinary thinking seems to be the basic idea of using various specialized disciplines in order to further innovate. In my own opinion, this thinking seems to be growing, as older inventions were simple to think of. I will attempt to explain this in a clearer manner. As problems become more complex, the need for this type of thinking grows.

    Let us start simple.

    Jeff, a carpenter, would like to chop the nearby trees in order to make furniture. Beside his cabin stand ten trees.
    In his excitement, he chops down all the trees, and makes his furniture. His furniture ends up becoming quite popular, making him quite a bit of money. With his new found source of income, he decides to make more furniture. Returning to the trees, he finds that they never grew back. In his excitement, he had killed the trees.
    Not to be foiled by trees, he walks further along, and finds a forest. Once again excited, he hires more workers, and has them chop all the trees. Blinded by money, he destroys the forest.
    As he grows wealthier, he chops more trees.
    By the end of the year, no trees could be found.

    Jeff was thinking simple: cut the trees, make the money, repeat.
    If he had bothered to learn from his mistakes, of killing the trees, he would have begun to think interdisciplinary. An arborist would have suggested for him to plant a tree seed for every tree that was chopped down. An expert in ecosystems would have advised him to leave certain areas untouched, for the animals to relocate to. While an Engineer would have advised him in the use of more efficiently using the trees he cut, in order to not have the need to chop down as many as he had.
    Taking it further, an expert in sales, such as those from the diamond industry, would have recommended for him to make less furniture, but higher the price, creating a fake deficit.
    Thinking simply, Jeff has caused the lack of oxygen in the world, and forced the people to live in enclosed cities, where oxygen is sold like gasoline.

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