computational biologists perceived as pure scientists is in the creation of separate academic units within institutions. Here they are recruited as computational biologists, they are evaluated as computational biologists, they are promoted as computational biologists, and then they become collegial collaborators with people in other departments on research projects. The same goes for medical informatics.
MISCHA SCHWARTZ: The issues you raise are common to many interdisciplinary areas. There is one school of thought that says perhaps the way to do this is to learn one discipline well and become a specialist in it and then go on to the other one, rather than spreading yourself too thin. What are your comments on this?
SHORTLIFFE: Well, it was indeed the question I was asked most when we proposed our program. It depends on whether you really believe that there is a body of knowledge at the intersection that warrants full-time focus during training.
There is a difference between learning a lot about medicine and then learning a little about computing, or learning a lot about computing and then a little about medicine, and focusing your entire graduate training at the intersection itself. I believe there is also a significant difference between formal informatics training and having someone first finish a medical degree and then earn a computer science degree in a conventional computer science environment; the connections to medicine are not part and parcel of the way computer science is taught, and understanding the relationships and relevance is thus inherently left as an exercise to the student. We have found that there is a kind of culture in a field that students begin to absorb if they train in an environment where everybody else is also working at the intersection of disciplines that interest them.
I think time has shown that people who actually train explicitly to work at this intersection—individuals who get all their course work and culture in an environment that allows them to interact regularly with others who have the same interdisciplinary interest—develop a special skill set as bridge people and as productive contributors when they get out. Such skills are not easily acquired by earning one degree or the other and then sort of secondarily adding a pure version of what they missed.
WILLIAM WULF: I personally think that the issues raised here about interdisciplinary work between computer science and biology go across the board. Computing intersects absolutely everything, as Ted said. So this is a problem that we computer scientists really have to face up to. I think we can be a model for a lot of other disciplines where the same problems occur, but perhaps there is not quite the same urgency to collaborate at the moment.