Friday, September 25, 2009

Third Culture Journal Club

Yesterday was the inaugural meeting of the Third Culture Journal Club, an organization for graduate students interested in interdisciplinary research. I felt like a bit of an impostor as I sat with a bunch of truly interdisciplinary students from Emory's Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, but they assured me that they want to reach out to science students as well.

I enjoyed hearing what others had to say on this topic, and participating in the discussion. It was quite different from the sorts of journal clubs that I attend in the sciences -- we barely referred to the reading! Most science journal clubs engage in a figure-by-figure breakdown of the article, a lengthy critique of the methods, and an interpretation of the results in a broader context. Third Culture's discussion used the assigned articles mainly as a jumping-off point. Still, I found the reading helpful to put me in the right frame of mind. I'm not used to working with these nebulous terms, so the attempts at defining academic disciplines and inter/multidisciplinarity research were helpful to me. It was also refreshing to read a couple of non-science articles for 'school' -- imagine, spending less than an hour going over a five page document!

The group talked a bit about interdisciplinary initiatives at Emory. One student at the meeting helped form the Scholars Program in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Research (so new it doesn't seem to have a website yet!). She talked about how different ideas of interdisciplinarity came up during the planning stages of the program, and how people had vastly different opinions on the matter: some feel the neurosciences are already interdisciplinary enough, while others feel that we should collaborate more with the social sciences and humanities. We decided that "interdisciplinarity" cannot be all things to all people, and that perhaps we should attempt to more specifically define our goals for a particular research initiative. We concluded that while certain questions are best addressed through interdisciplinary collaboration, one should not fall into the trap of slapping an "interdisciplinary" label on a project merely to generate buzz or funding, as not all work can be conducted this way. We also came up with the term "problem-based research" as an alternative to "interdisciplinary research." The distinction between the two will be a focus of next month's meeting.

One article from the assigned reading (Golde et al., 1999) used the Emory Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences as an example of a successful interdisciplinary initiative. By putting all the life sciences under one "umbrella," Emory has freed graduate students from individual departments and thus allowed for more interdisciplinary research, or so the argument goes. In the ten years since the publication of this article, many other programs have followed in Emory's footsteps. In fact, all four of the graduate programs for which I interviewed had life science "umbrella" programs (in addition to the GDBBS at Emory, I visited the BBSP at UNC Chapel Hill, the IDP at UF, and the integrated PhD program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine).

As an insider in one such program, I'm not certain that they've achieved true interdisciplinary enlightenment. Each sub-program (there are eight of them in GDBBS) maintains its independence, setting its own standards for coursework, qualifying exams, and dissertation committees. Each has a Director of Graduate Studies, a Program Director, and other governing bodies. Outside of a first-year biochemistry course, students in different programs rarely interact. While we don't work for a specific "department," in many ways we might as well be separated along those lines, as the individual program boundaries have a similar effect. This was also true of most of the other "umbrella" programs I visited -- some of them had wildly different requirements for the different sub-programs, with variations in stipends, teaching responsibilities, and scholarship opportunities, among other things. Einstein was a notable objection, as their PhD program does not break itself down into smaller programs at all (though students become affiliated with a department once they join a lab).

There are some true benefits to the GDBBS, however. I do appreciate the fact that I work with students from the BCDB and GMB programs in my lab, even though it took me about a year to even learn what all the different program acronyms stand for (some of which seem a little redundant -- "Microbiology and Molecular Genetics" vs. "Genetics and Molecular Biology"?). My lab is in the Department of Human Genetics, and it wouldn't have occurred to me to apply to a genetics PhD program back when I was researching schools. Because I essentially have two 'departments' (Human Genetics and the Neuroscience Program), I'm exposed to a larger scientific network than I may have been with only one affiliation. The nature of GDBBS/Neuroscience at Emory meant that I could rotate in labs associated with many different departments (I also dabbled in Pharmacology and Neurology) before making up my mind about what I wanted to do. Still, if Emory had a Department of Neuroscience instead of a Neuroscience Program, I'm not sure that my rotation experience would have been noticeably different. So, while programs like GDBBS are a good start, there is more room for improvement.

In general, I support any effort to encourage graduate students to branch out from their tiny subfields into the broader academic world. I specifically chose a liberal arts university for my undergraduate training because I appreciated the opportunity to study things like Latin lyric and elegiac poetry alongside my neuroscience classes. While my own research isn't especially conducive to interdisciplinary exploration (not a lot of textual analysis can be done on the subject of neural tube development...), I'm glad that groups like Third Culture exist to help broaden my perspective. These conversations are worth having even if they don't fit into my dissertation.

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