Published: Feb. 6, 2013 By
Ryan tends to a tranquilized bear during field work in Missouri.

IQ Bio Blog: Interdisciplinarity on Steroids

by: Ryan Langendorf

At my last mentoring committee meeting, after discussing the tug-of-war that the Environmental Studies and IQ Biology programs have been playing with my schedule, Dr. Brett Melbourne paused and quietly commented that my life is “interdisciplinarity on steroids!” We all laughed, but sometimes I lose sight of how many worlds I inhabit. Most graduate students are like horses at a racetrack: blinders on, charging ahead singularly. I am lucky enough to have found myself in not one, but two programs that span disciplines in meaningful ways.

So what is a day of interdisciplinarity on steroids like? Well, imagine being crowded into a small, overly warm basement classroom debating the role scientists ought to play in society and politics with perspectives ranging from philosophical justifications to legislative ideologies to scientific uncertainty. Then, the clock strikes 1:30. You grab your things, dash out of the room, sprint up the stairs, tear across the quad, zigzag past oncoming traffic, catch the bus pulling out, stampede over to the new biotech building on east campus, run up the stairs, yank open the door, slide next to your classmates and start in on a presentation explaining how Fourier transforms are used in x-ray crystallography and electron microscopy. Just another Tuesday afternoon.

Definitely hyperbolic, but that cross-campus dash I made last semester happened not only every Tuesday but almost daily as I bumped into people or switched homework gears or met up with PIs and students for research meetings. I would never trade my life at CU for a more traditional graduate career, but making connections between the disparate areas of my life can be a career on its own. Sometimes I like to imagine people carrying spools of string everywhere they go. I’m not sure how my path through life would appear to an eagle passing by, but I like to imagine it would zigzag around the campus connecting seemingly unrelated buildings in interesting ways.

"I have come to believe that scientists are truly today's superheroes. And just like any good superheroes, tackling the greatest of obstacles requires teamwork."

I spent this past summer in the Nevada desert trapping and tracking Microdipodops pallidus (the adorable and locally at-risk pale kangaroo mouse which tries very hard to live up to its name) and figuring out where and what graduate school would be for me. My advisor, Dr. Dan Doak, offered the more traditional ecology and evolutionary biology department as an option and it weighed heavily on me.

I have always sought means to integrate far-ranging disciplines like math, sociology, public policy, and computer science into my research, but have always done so from a more traditional perch. When I visited schools last spring I made sure to ask every student I encountered how often they interacted with people from different disciplines and with different perspectives. So few seemed to understand why I was even asking, as if all the answers lay close at hand. Here, in Boulder, I am surrounded by people who see differences as the strongest reason to collaborate, and it is inspiring.

I have come to believe that scientists are truly today’s superheroes. We may not have omnipotent suits in our closets like Tony Stark or be able to read minds like Charles Xavier, but when it comes to saving the world, to believing no disease incurable, no planet too far away, no species too unimportant, the scientific community is a pretty heroic bunch. And just like any good superheroes, tackling the greatest of obstacles requires teamwork.

The inspirational Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie speaks of “the danger of a single story”. By this she means the threat of people who see the world through only one perspective, who approach life singularly. This danger seems as real as ever for scientists, and I hope more students find it within themselves to challenge disciplinary thinking as profoundly and meaningfully as my classmates and colleagues in Boulder do every day.

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