June 21, 2013

Interdisciplinary science in Hyderabad


Wednesday and Thursday were full, though I only had one scheduled meeting. On Wednesday morning I went to TCIS...which expands to TIFR Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, which further expands to Tata Institute for Foundational Research Centre...etc. They are a centrally supported research institute which also trains Ph.D. students. TCIS is just ramping up; their "parent" is the TIFR in Mumbai. In this new "Interdisciplinary" centre, they're focusing on particular avenues of research, and assembling teams of scientists who specialize in various components of those research areas.
The dean (V. Chandrasekhar) and several faculty (Srikanth Sastry, Surajit Sangupta, and Smarajit Karmakar) and I had a broad ranging conversation about training students interdisciplinarily...while we all value it, all recognize the importance, there's not much known in terms of best practices. They're building with a system where students do have a foundational or central discipline but design a program of study with their research mentor that builds what they need (not dissimilar to many Ph.D. programs I'm familiar with!). They were thinking about building in lectures, workshops, short courses etc. as necessary to fill gaps in student (and faculty) background. Institutionalizing something like this- making it easy and routine for a group to say, hey, let's invite Dr. X from Mumbai to come in for a week and give us a few lectures on the state of the science in this field- would allow them to really train their students broadly, and (I believe) make significant progress in their research.
One of the issues that challenges us with interdisciplinary training came up in this meeting as well. Students were very nervous that they'd be getting a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Science; they prefer one in Physics, Chemistry, etc. largely based on job market related concerns. I think they're exactly right; though we say we want people who work in interdisicplinary areas, we don't know exactly what to do with those people in a university setting if they don't sort reasonably well into a (discipline) based department. There's also the concern: what exactly would a degree in "Interdisciplinary Science" mean? We see that in environmental degrees as well, you really have to look at a student's transcript or research to know what their expertise is; this can be a disadvantage in a setting where someone in HR is combing through a large pile of resumes. However, they did also describe a trend of increases in specific (attractive sounding: nanotech, biotech, etc.) interdisciplinary degree programs. Having a degree in nanotechnology sounds much more specific than one in interdisciplinary science, but fundamentally, you wouldn't know *much* more about the degree program (it could go a lot of different directions) from the name. There's also always the question of how early one can specialize; how do you still build the foundational strength that one needs to be not just a passive practicioner in an applied field but to have the theoretical and conceptual background to be able to innovate?
They asked me, interestingly- why are you asking us about interdisciplinary training- you guys are the one that put an emphasis on broad education; you should know! I said I think we still have a lot to learn- that just getting students to take a variety of classes does not in and of itself necessarily train them to see the connections between those subjects. We need to think more about how we help students recognize how what they have learned in one class influences their view of what they learn in another, and how they can be more alert to interconnections, to places where an appreciation of one discipline deepens your appreciation of another. Ideally, they'd begin to see how problems in one discipline could actually be beneficially addressed using tools of another. That is a little less of a problem for them; working at the PhD level, with students engaged in topics that clearly cannot be solved using the tools of one discipline...it's clear to them where the connections are, and the value of alternate perspectives.  It has really struck me-after just writing about the importance of interdisciplinarity, certainly the easiest flowing discussions, and many of the most productive for me here have been with scientists- even though we weren't talking science, specifically. That's not something I'd say is true at home; however, I know a much broader range of scientists at home than here...here I'm talking to those who either became administrators (the crazy fools!) or those who for one reason or another were likely candidates to talk about innovation in education and interdisciplinarity. So there's probably some selection bias there...or perhaps it's my own comfort level, and though we're speaking cross culturally from an international standpoint we still share a certain culture that just makes conversation require a little less effort. Or it's not really a pattern, and I'm falling prey to confirmation bias since, as a scientist, I want to have a positive opinion of other scientists.  

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