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Interdisciplinarity: Mixing it up

I introduced myself earlier as a graduate student in Public Health Genetics, an interdisciplinary program. But what exactly is “interdisciplinary?” It’s a nice-sounding word that gets thrown around a lot, but can be tough to define — sort of like “zumba.” (Ethnic dance style fusion? Funky line dancing?) So I’m going to take this post as an opportunity to explore this mysterious word, “interdisciplinary,” both as a general concept and as a personal and professional aspiration of mine. (Don’t worry, I have taken a class and read some papers on the topic, so I’m not totally winging it here.)


A taxonomy of disciplinarity
To understand interdisciplinarity it helps to start with disciplinarity and build out a taxonomy from there. Disciplines are individual subjects or fields of study, such as philosophy, biology, or history. Monodisciplinary is remaining in one discipline. Combining multiple disciplines can occur with varying degrees of integration, creating a kind of taxonomy that I’ll describe with an extended metaphor borrowed from Dr. Paula Nurius (UW School of Social Work). Think of individual disciplines as pieces of fruit. Initially they’re separate, maybe divided into individual bins at the supermarket. There’s little exchange of people, ideas, problems, or approaches. When you start to put the disciplines in closer proximity to each other, you have a multidisciplinary fruit plate. Disciplinarians are starting to talk, but they’re still distinct and kinda doing their own thing. Cut up the fruit and put it in a salad and now we’re in the interdisciplinary zone, where different disciplines are starting to have a greater influence on each other. Take that fruit salad and throw it in a blender and now we’ve got a transdisciplinary smoothie, where the product is wholly different than the sum of its parts. Inspiring and nutritious.  But quite rare and difficult to achieve in practice.

Interdisciplinary scholars typically have a disciplinary “home” in which they’ve achieved a certain level of mastery and knowledge. In addition to this home, they also have the cultural sensitivity and language skills needed to travel to other “homes.” These other homes might be different internal mental spaces or externally different places: the disciplinary “homes” of their colleagues. Cultural sensitivity and language skills are hardly even metaphorical here. Some of the key challenges of interdisciplinary work are to find a common language and to maintain respect for the ways of other disciplines. Because in addition to having different objects of study, disciplines are characterized by different ways of studying (methodologies) and different ways of knowing (epistemologies). But there’s a growing recognition both within and beyond academia that the world’s contemporary, complex problems need interdisciplinary and collaborative approaches. We can’t keep poking at things with our individual sticks. We need Swiss Army knife, fruit smoothie approaches.


Public Health Genetics as an interdisciplinary field
So how is interdisciplinarity manifest in Public Health Genetics, my field of study? Well, the applications of genetic information and technologies are complex and multi-faceted. Genetic information is being increasingly integrated into health care. Researchers are using more and more types of genetic data to understand human health and disease (see Big Data, Big Deal (?)).  Genetic analysis is being used to track infectious disease outbreaks. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing is changing how people conceptualize and investigate their personal and familial identities (see OTC genetics). Just to name a few. To understand how all this is happening and with what effects, we benefit from considering and perhaps synthesizing the approaches and ideas of multiple disciplines.

My graduate training and work experiences have encompassed genetic epidemiology, biostatistics, policy, law, social science, and bioethics. I have studied and applied both quantitative and qualitative research methods. I approach scholarship from both an empirical (what is?) and a normative (what should be?) standpoint. My goal is to bring all this to bear in an academic research career that looks at how genetic information is shaping our everyday experiences. Most immediately, I’m embarking on an interdisciplinary dissertation project that weaves together data science, social science, and policy to examine how people are accessing and using their own genetic data obtained from direct-to-consumer genetic testing .


Assembling an interdisciplinary outfit

Assembling an interdiscplinary outfit
Assembling an interdiscplinary outfit

In the interdisciplinary career class I mentioned earlier, I was asked to create a visual to describe how I see my interdisciplinarity developing (reproduced above).  When asked what I do, I commonly respond that I wear two hats: one as a research scientist in human genetics and one as a graduate student in Public Health Genetics. I built my visual off this phrase, to illustrate how I want to continue integrating these different aspects of my interests and skills, to move from a series of monodisciplinary “hats” to an interdisciplinary “outfit”. The way I envision doing that is to continue seeking collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas across different groups of peers, mentors, friends and families. Plus some fruit and a blender.


1 Comment

  1. […] Disciplines and professions use specialized terminology (and yes, acronyms!) presumably for one of two reasons. First, sheer convenience. It’s too much work to spell everything out or give long winded definitions each time a concept is needed. Instead we use shortcuts. Within the given discipline or profession, this is generally unproblematic because the meaning is known and therefore the shortcut is sufficient to communicate the idea. (Side note that assuming shared meanings of terms and concepts presents a real challenge — and opportunity! — in interdisciplinary work.) […]

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