Don’t Fence Me In

Last week I met with a colleague who will probably become my collaborator on a new research idea. We’ve been on the same campus for a couple of years, but until recently we never talked about our work. He does basic psychiatric research, studying brain-behavior relationships, and I focus primarily on sexual risk reduction, especially in high-risk populations.

During our conversation we found some common ground not only for our research but also for a training program that he administers, and I felt the familiar excitement that comes when myriad ideas for new projects start percolating all at once.

As sources of money continue to shrink, and interdisciplinary research is given a high priority by many large agencies, finding new collaborations is not only a good way to stretch as a scientist, but also a necessity for many. The emphasis on translational science at the National Institutes of Health, for example, has encouraged many faculty at my university to do more talking across some of the traditional boundaries among basic, clinical, and community research, and has resulted in new projects for many of us. It’s also challenged us to think more about how to help our students learn the language of these domains, to better equip them to make these kinds of connections throughout their careers.

Despite those positive developments, though, there are many challenges in doing research across boundaries of departments, colleges or schools, even universities. Grant-application review committees and journal editorial boards that have been focused on a particular discipline or field sometimes struggle with research proposals and manuscript submissions that are more interdisciplinary in nature (although there are many that have a strong appreciation for such work).

Policies on the administration of grant money, depending on their approach to interdisciplinary research, can create either a sense of competition or collaboration across departments or divisions. And even within interdisciplinary teams that come together for a new project, there can be a need for constant negotiation as researchers bring their own perspectives and priorities to the work.

I hope that as I continue to grow as a scientist, I also will find new ways to work across disciplines, including with colleagues in fields like the arts, in which I have not yet collaborated. There are so many possibilities! But as someone whose role is not only to do my research but also to help the students and faculty in our college develop their own programs, I think often about ways to facilitate creative work across disciplinary boundaries, and to address some of the barriers to such work.

What have been your most exciting interdisciplinary collaborations? What barriers to this kind of research have you encountered, and how have you navigated those challenges?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Shayan (USA)]

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