Multidisciplinary research for early-career scientists

Students and young researchers might find that their careers allow them to engage with more than one field or discipline. This post explores how multidisciplinary research can be stimulating and valuable at all stages, from university to when running an independent lab.
Multidisciplinary research for early-career scientists

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Multidisciplinary research is a self-explanatory concept that refers to scientific exploration that exploits approaches and knowledge from several disciplines. Two classical examples are functional imaging of the brain in relation to mental tasks, which involves physics, engineering, radiochemistry and psychology approaches; and bench-to-bedside biomedicine, which requires input from medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, biology and statistics among others. Multidisciplinarity, together with other forms of cross-fertilization efforts such as interdisciplinarity, have become increasingly popular over the last two decades. This trend can be grasped from the appearance of the word “multidisciplinary” in the title and abstract of articles indexed in Pubmed since the 1950’s (Figure).

Graph of the number of hits in Pubmed searches for “multidisciplinary” and “discipline” in title and/or abstract
Figure. Number of hits in Pubmed searches for “multidisciplinary” and “discipline” in title and/or abstract. By comparing both distributions, we can observe that the relative frequency of appearance of the word “multidisciplinary” vs “discipline” has increased over the last two decades. Date of search: 17 October 2022.

Explore the new ground between fields

From a career perspective, there are some advantages associated with multidisciplinary research. Most importantly, using multidisciplinary approaches you can tackle research questions that are out of reach to a single discipline alone. In addition, multidisciplinary research is highly intellectually stimulating. Its trendy vibe can also make some grant applications succeed, especially in dedicated funding schemes that foster multi- and interdisciplinary approaches (a side note: the label “multidisciplinary” should not be used in vain. Even better, let the evaluators decide if proposals are multidisciplinary or not!). The reader should be advised though that the opposite may be true in grant programs in which panels are discipline specific. Similar unfavorable situations for multidisciplinary research are occasionally found also during peer-reviewed publication of results, in hiring and promotion committees, etc. Young academies, such as the Spanish Young Academy I’m affiliated with, promote multidisciplinary research since their members come from different disciplines but share common goals in fostering science. I encourage young scientists interested in multidisciplinary research to learn about their Young Academies. They may even consider applying to become members.

In my opinion, most research fields in biology are, or are bound to become, multidisciplinary. You can have a look at the table of contents of leading journals and judge for yourself: immunometabolism, mechanobiology, oncobiome, nanobiotechnology, biomaterials, etc. Biological systems are extremely complex. As a consequence, complementary views stemming from different fields are becoming increasingly needed to do meaningful research, i.e., providing novel insights into the known unknowns – and also uncovering so-far unknown unknowns. Obviously, this need for multidisciplinary research is not a new thing. Some disciplines that are now well established are the result of integration of once seemingly divergent fields. For instance, pioneers of structural biology pushed the limits of experimental engineering, physics, and chemistry to unravel the molecular organization of biomolecules in an enabling synergy that is still ongoing.

Throw a wider net

At this point, the reader may be persuaded to engage in multidisciplinary research, if they’re not already doing so. What is the best way to do it? A classical and effective approach is through collaboration with people with different expertise. However, for early career investigators I would prioritize appropriate training in the different disciplines they are interested in. This approach will not probably make them master all chosen disciplines, but the first-hand knowledge they will get will be important to configure future independent lines of research and help them chose the best collaborators.

Undergraduate and graduate students have many opportunities to train in different disciplines. For instance, they may choose different laboratories to complete their BSc and MSc theses and do research rotations. Students opting for this route may feel that they make progress more slowly than their peers who stick to one single lab, but they should be assured that their strategy is a good investment in the long run. A wide research experience can be very well regarded by panel members and employers if applicants can make them understand how multidisciplinary training contributes to their career progression.

Some PhD programs foster research stays that can be used by fellows to expose themselves to other disciplines. Multidisciplinary PhD students should take advantage of them to have a look at their projects with new perspectives. Importantly, these stays will also help PhD students gain perspective to decide on their most appropriate postdoctoral training.

The postdoctoral stage is a fantastic opportunity to get acquainted with a new discipline. At this point, scientists typically know very well both their field of research and their own interests, so they are in a very good position to plan highly effective and successful postdoctoral appointments. This is not a matter of little importance, since in general postdoctoral training will be key to configuring independent careers. In my opinion, an effective approach is choosing a laboratory in which the postdoc fellow already has ~50% of the knowledge/skills needed to develop the project of choice. Although engaging in several postdoctoral stays is possible, I would only prioritize this option if there is a clear scientific need for these stays to configure an independent line of research.

Opportunities to broaden horizons do not end when scientists start their independent laboratory. For instance, a powerful way of widening the scope of a group leader is to establish their laboratory in an institution whose expertise is complementary to theirs. In my case, I was trained in protein biophysics but started my independent laboratory Molecular Mechanics of the Cardiovascular System at CNIC, a cardiovascular research institute that focuses on cell and animal models. Interaction with colleagues at CNIC has allowed me to better frame the biological questions that I’m interested in regarding how mechanical proteins contribute to muscle function, and to get access to specific tools and expertise. Several funding agencies, including the ERC, have appreciated the value of this integration.

As a group leader, there is also the option to hire people with different backgrounds, which can help bring in new disciplines. In general, group leaders should not rely on undergraduate or graduate students for this, since at these stages students still have limited experience and may find it difficult to integrate their expertise in a setting that is new to them.

Find a mentor, or two

In this article, I have gone through a few opportunities to engage in multidisciplinary biological research. Some of them may work better than others depending on specific circumstances. Also, there may be other mechanisms available that I have not considered here. In this context, the importance of personal mentoring cannot be stressed enough. Indeed, a final piece of advice that may work for everybody is making sure that the young multidisciplinary scientist gets good mentorship covering the different disciplines they are interested in. People can look for mentors themselves, and/or resort to dedicated mentoring programs organized, for example, by scientific societies or Young Academies, such as the program Mentor-AJE organized by the Spanish Young Academy. Mentoring programs from Young Academies are probably very well suited given their inherently multidisciplinary nature.

Photo by Kelly Brito on Unsplash 

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