. "6 Enabling Research at the Intersection: Promoting Training, Support, and Communication Across Disciplines." Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010.
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Research at the Intersection of the Physical and Life Sciences
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN DISCIPLINES
The degree of connection that can take place in work between disciplines varies, and the demands on those participating in and supporting that work will likewise differ. This section discusses several categories of connections; even though any such categorization is approximate at best. Actual crosscutting research efforts are more a part of a continuum rather than belonging in clearly separate categories.
The first degree of connection is simply a collaboration of experts from different disciplines, with each contributing expertise from his or her own field without crossing over into the other field (“multidisciplinary”). A physicist might build an imaging device for her neurobiologist collaborator, or a computer scientist might analyze complex sequence data generated by his geneticist collaborator. Researchers participating in this type of collaborative effort do not require extensive in-depth knowledge or skill sets from their collaborator’s discipline. Although always desirable, truly interdisciplinary training in this type of minimally cross-disciplinary work is not strictly necessary. However, the collaborators must at least speak each other’s language—that is, communicate across disciplinary borders.
A second type of research is conducted by individuals who were originally trained in one of the classical disciplines but since have acquired skills and knowledge in another discipline. This might include, for example, additional coursework at the graduate level or postdoctoral training in the other field. The research performed by these individuals, either by themselves or with others similarly trained, is currently often referred to as interdisciplinary research. Such cross-training mostly happens owing to the interests and initiative of individuals. Work of this type could be facilitated by encouraging classically trained physical and life scientists to transcend their disciplines and acquire education and training in other fields. One mechanism that fosters the cross-over of individuals trained in the physical sciences into the life sciences is discussed in the next subsection.
A third category is research in new fields that have emerged from previous connections between disciplines (“interdisciplinary integration”). Such fields as biomedical engineering and biostatistics combine features of several traditional disciplines into a new discipline. The emergence of such fields is not new, as several of the distinct fields now firmly established in today’s universities, including molecular biology and biochemistry, have their origin in the intersection of past disciplines.
Culture of Separation between the Life and Physical Sciences
Conducting research at the intersection of the physical and life sciences requires bringing together not only separate disciplines but also, in many senses, separate cultures. While biologists, physicists, and chemists may not be that different in