Yesterday I cycled over to the Addenbrookes Site for a meeting with Maria Spillantini of the Brain Repair Unit. She is particularly interested in Parkinson’s Disease, and we were discussing the nature of protein aggregation in Lewy Bodies – abnormal filamentous deposits. In disease, these are located in some nerve cells which are believed to degenerate as a result. Alpha-synuclein is the major component of the Lewy Bodies and the filaments do not stain with Congo Red, unlike the typical amyloid fibrils of diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease. To what extent my physicist’s approach to such protein aggregation may be helpful in unraveling the make-up of the Lewy Bodies is what we were discussing: they have complex morphologies, with a clear central region which stains differently (and is clearly visible in transmission electron micrographs too) from the outer regions, but a detailed understanding of what these different regions are or why they form is lacking. It was a fascinating discussion and we explored possible ways to take the work further.
Once back in my office I was trying to type up my notes when I realized how many basic facts about the deposits, their location and what is known about the relevant pathways I had neglected to ask. These weren’t research-type questions; they were probably ‘Parkinson’s Disease 101’ type questions, but my education had not included exposure to that material. And this exemplifies a well-known problem in trying to tackle interdisciplinary research. Sometimes it is jargon or nomenclature one lacks knowledge of, sometimes as in this case it is simply basic facts, but there is always a large amount of groundwork to do for truly interdisciplinary collaborations to take off. It takes time and effort to forge good collaborations and to learn sufficient background to interpret what the other party is saying.
Some years ago I attended a meeting at the Royal Society discussing how best to prepare for interdisciplinary working. The question was asked was it preferable to be educated in a specialist subject (physics, zoology etc), or should one be educated at undergraduate level in a little bit of all the subjects, so that one was ‘interdisciplinary’, or perhaps better ‘multidisciplinary’ from the start of one’s higher education? The consensus then, and I would still agree with it, was that it was better to be thoroughly and rigorously trained in a single subject, to become an expert in it, and then to learn what one needs to interact with other disciplines as required later – by which time you know what topics you need to cover. From my own past work on food, which exposed me to food scientists and their degree courses, I think it is clear that for many of them did not have the tools to address some fundamental questions because they were necessarily in the jack-of-all trades mould. This approach is very useful for some situations, and may certainly prepare food science graduates for work in their industry, but it does not necessarily facilitate tackling novel research.