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On Nov. 21st, Bangladesh Student Association at Purdue University (BDSA) organized a panel to discuss “Interdisciplinary Research: Challenges and Opportunities for Building a New Collaboration.” More than 30 Bangladeshi students and faculty gathered in the Material Science and Electrical Engineering Building. The discussion began promptly at 7:30 pm when the BDSA President Shams Duha introduced a multi-disciplinary panel (Dr. Uma K. Aryal, Director of Purdue Proteomics Facility; Dr. Maizbha Uddin Ahmed, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Industrial and Physical Pharmacy; SM Ferdous, Graduate Research Assistant, Computer Science; Israt Ferdous, Graduate Research Assistant, Science Education; Rafatul Faria, Graduate Research Assistant, ECE) and requested Prof. Alam, a Purdue Electrical Engineering Faculty, to moderate the panel discussion.

In explaining the importance of the topic, Prof. Alam recalled two TV shows from the 1980s: Ei Shob Din Ratri, a Bangladesh TV show where famous writer Humayun Ahmed introduces “situational comedy” where extraordinary things arises at the intersections of the ordinary, and in COSMOS TV series, Carl Sagan attributes the transformative creativity of classical Greece, Rome and Renaissance Venice to the cross-currents of ideas percolating in these small trading islands. In short, transcendent creativity often arises when people with different backgrounds have an opportunity to work together.

The discussion got a lively start in trying to define the meaning of “Disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary” research. One of the panelists, Dr. Aryal, defined the issue crisply by distinguishing between interdisciplinary vs. multidisciplinary research and contrasting it with transdisciplinary research. Using concrete examples from his laboratory, he explained that a multidisciplinary researcher uses a resource from another discipline to answer a discipline-specific question, while an interdisciplinary researcher answers a broader question that can only be answered by a synthesis of disciplines. Rafatul Faria explained that a smart-phone, which involves a synthesis of many branches of electrical, mechanical, chemical engineering, could only be created by a synthesis of research from multiple fields. The discussion led to the notion of trans-disciplinary research, which involves the big collaboration needed to produce a smartphone, even though each research topic must still be confined to neighboring disciplines. Several members of the audience noted that even the disciplinary research actually involves contributions from many disciplines (e.g. ECE students learn mathematics, physics, computer engineering, and so on). SM Ferdous explained that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between collaborative research and interdisciplinary research or multidisciplinary research, and yet a board collaboration between scientists and engineers was essential to the creation of modern civilization. Israt Ferdous neatly summarized the discussion by drawing a series of diagrams defining the terms and how they relate to each other.

The audience and panel agreed that interdisciplinary research is important because it can lead to new field-defining research and significant impact. There are however many challenges in initiating and sustaining interdisciplinary research. The rigid disciplinary structure of a university discourages interdisciplinary research. How would one identify the collaborators? Does one need to learn multiple new topics and new terminologies for effective interdisciplinary research? Is it more difficult to publish the research because the editors may not find reviewers who are comfortable with multiple topics? Can an interdisciplinary researcher suffer from an identity crisis? Is there a perception that interdisciplinary research implies an inferior research because depth may be compromised for breadth? The cultural attitude can be a problem: the noise in one field can be the main result in another field. Dr. Ahmed provided a concrete example from personal experience: When he first started his PhD, his main aim was to use the conventional pharmacology methods. At that time, he had no idea that related  methods from other disciplines would be essential for his success. Learning these new methods were very challenging, but ultimately very rewarding.  The room buzzed with questions, comments, and personal observations because the topic is not academic, but something that everyone grapples daily.

Although there were no definitive answers about how to conduct interdisciplinary research correctly, there were several suggestions. First of all, everyone agreed that one must master a discipline at the undergraduate/graduate level, before venturing into interdisciplinary research. In fact, the group agreed that the primary goal of undergraduate education should be to create a broad and deep foundation (like a pyramid base). At the graduate level, the disciplinary, multi-disciplinary, or interdisciplinary research should be viewed as tools whose choice is dictated by the original research hypothesis. If the research question is shallow, the answer – disciplinary or multidisciplinary – cannot lead to profound results. Some suggested that it helps to have a broad interest and talk to a lot of people. Others felt that initially, it is better to work in multi-disciplinary teams with narrower questions, but then venture into more integrated interdisciplinary problems.

The rewards of multidisciplinary research are numerous and significant in terms of publication in high impact journals, increased productivity, better name recognition, and an ability to attract funding from multiple sources. Despite these advantages, one should be careful about ethical pitfalls in terms of credit sharing, acknowledging contributions from others, etc. Without this broader and more generous perspective, the interdisciplinary teams may disintegrate in bitter acrimony. In other words, people-issues are as important as technical issues in interdisciplinary research.

By now the western style panel discussion has morphed into an “Adda” with a lively discussion threading the big room. It was getting late, however, and the pizza was getting cold. Therefore, the moderator brought the discussion to a close by thanking the organizer and acknowledging the panelists and audience for their thoughtful participation. He also remarked that interdisciplinary research is often enabled by a broad curiosity about the world and a deep humility so that we can learn from people around us. He explained that in that context, an understanding of the history, literature, and technical issues allows one to ask deep and enduring interdisciplinary questions and frame the answers in memorable ways. As the event ended and everyone stepped out in the cold winter night, one hopes that the BDSA group discussion will trigger and sustain an even more important and profound conversion in the future: The discussion that one holds with oneself when no one is around.

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