The Interdisciplinary Challenge

This week I am talking at an event in London marking (I believe) the launch of Nature Reviews Physics, but the emphasis of this event will be on the promotion of best working practices in ‘physics and interdisciplinary science’, as it was phrased in the letter of invitation. In other words, what do physicists have to offer other disciplines and how can we work optimally together? Three of us will be discussing how we’ve got to where we are and what challenges we faced en route, I think with the aim of inspiring others that this is a track worth travelling along. You can read interviews with the three of us on the Nature blogs (Vittoria Colliza, Bart Hoogenboom and myself).

For me, falling into the world of biology was not an intentional aim, as maybe it is for some. I just kept getting sucked further into it due to my habit – the habit of any decent researcher – of asking awkward questions. In recent discussions in my own university about what our (undergraduate) education should be aiming at, the belief that – whatever your discipline – being critical is a core competence kept surfacing.  And casting such a critical eye on received wisdom from another discipline is part of the joy – and frustration – of being interdisciplinary.

My own ‘falling’ into the world of biology started from the rather deader aspect of biological materials with which we are all (at least in some senses) familiar, namely food. If you talk to food scientists they have to cover a wide area of knowledge with the inevitable consequence that their in-depth knowledge of any part may be more limited. For instance, asking (of what was then Rowntrees) what the connectivity of sugar crystals in chocolate was seemed to take the industrialists by surprise. But morphological connectivity seemed to me to be a basic and rather obvious question. The question of what happens to the fresh-from-the-plant starch granules when they are extruded with water to make the equivalent of Cheesy Wotsits, aka (in more prosaic terms) as an extruded starch foam turned out to be the question that ultimately took me into the realm of living stuff. I got there by carrying out some quite sophisticated real-time small angle X-ray and neutron scattering – respectable activities for a physicist, even if starch was at the time perceived as less of a respectable material to work on – and thereby analysing the mesoscopic internal granule structure and its breakdown during cooking. I had fun with this for a decade or so. Over the past approximately 30 years I have continued to move closer to biology, touching on protein aggregation and cellular biophysics on the way.

But if my remarks above about food scientists sound slightly sniffy or pejorative, then I can be equally rude about myself. Of course I only have a smattering of knowledge about proteins, or starch let alone cellular biophysics, just enough to enable me to get to grips with the experiments I am trying to do (or, more strictly, that my students are trying to do). I need to know a little about a lot, but I have never pretended to know more about plant biochemistry – for instance – when it comes to how the starch is laid down in the plant than I do.

That is why finding the right collaborators is so important. The person to whom you don’t mind admitting that you don’t understand their explanation of just how many enzymes are involved in the process of creating the granule, or why that knock-out has that specific effect (and they don’t mind admitting that they still have failed to grasp what Braggs Law is). The fact is, in my experience, it is inevitable one is going to have to ask some pretty naïve questions, probably several times, and if the person you are working with expresses that sniffiness too visibly or too often, working with them will not be a pleasure and progress is likely to be hampered. So, when it comes to my advice about how to have effective working relationships in an interdisciplinary setting, choosing people who you feel comfortable with admitting just how much you don’t know and, equally, not patronising them for failing to have all your own knowledge at their fingertips come at the top of my list.

One of the questions that Nature asked me for the blog really reminded me how incompetent one can feel when setting out into the unknown territory of a new field. I was asked what it felt like to attend the first conference in this new field. I remember it well: I felt so stupid. So much just went over my head. Things that were clearly bread and butter to other attendees merely felt mysterious to me. And, having gone on my own, I didn’t feel I could own up to my fog. This wasn’t a case of being a critical thinker. This was a case of having missed out on Protein Structure 101. Like learning a foreign language, immersion is probably the best way to master some of this, but a three day conference hardly amounts to immersion, it just means three days of feeling out of one’s depth.

Persistence has to be part of the solution to such confusion. Finding colleagues to fire questions at, reading basic texts and slowly piecing things together is a good starting strategy. And then firing off some more questions. You can get a long way with such tactics and some common sense. So, to finish off this post expressing how ignorant one can be and still not do too bad a job, let me confess to the experience of one of my first major committee-chairing jobs (if not the first), which was for the BBSRC. I was asked, as an outsider to the projects in the field and so without a vested interest yet who was well known to the BBSRC and its predecessor the AFRC, to chair a committee awarding grants for capital equipment, probably back in the late 1990s. Reading the titles of the applications, I realised they were entirely full of acronyms that meant nothing to me. I could have googled (which must have been a very recent tool back then, so that that verb probably did not yet exist), but instead I rang my starch plant biochemist collaborator, the John Innes Centre’s Alison Smith. She could fill me in the meaning of MALDI-TOF and other such useful terms. I wasn’t needing to do the refereeing (thank goodness), simply keep people on track, to time and reaching consensus positions about a ranked list. But being totally in the dark about what was being discussed would have felt all wrong. Having a general sense of the nature of the equipment under discussion (and I did read every proposal in full) gave me confidence that I could do the task. I don’t remember receiving any complaints from the other members of the committee, so presumably I knew just enough to confer confidence on them too.

Interdisciplinarity is of course a topic of growing interest. Hence Nature’s own motivation for the meeting on Tuesday; hence Research England’s emphasis on it (and the Interdisciplinary Advisory Panel that I chair for them for REF2021). But we each have to find our own way through the maze of working with others and crossing boundaries if we want to label ourselves as interdisciplinary.

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