The Jane of all trades of research

Interdisciplinary research has long been viewed critically by many. Our guest author Aruna Dhathathreyan has worked interdisciplinary her whole career. Here, she reports on the challenges she faced – and explains why this has motivated her to work hard to create her own ‘identity’.

As a scientist working in a lab in India, I heard my colleagues often discuss the impact factor of the journals they published their work in. Our organization evaluated the faculty relying at least in part on these metrics and ranked the performance of the scientists using parameters: e.g. publications, number of graduate students’ projects, external project grants awarded, courses taught, committees served on etc.  I am not a big fan of such rankings-based evaluations mainly because I feel that they are rarely objective. The conundrum is that many people like rankings, and it seems futile to argue against measuring and ranking people.The impact factor of a journal is based on citations, which may be an OK measure of impact, but is subject to many peculiar factors, particularly subject specific citations, which means that every subject has a different specialist audience in terms of numbers and interests. However, I do love publishing my work in specialist journals, and I think citations are probably not a terribly bad measure of impact when analysed on papers and individuals objectively.

Interdisciplinary research: a Holy Grail today

On the other hand, I have had trouble understanding how researchers who publish their work with multiple authors in journals are assessed. For example, a paper on antiviral therapy for HIV infected patients in Europe and North America published in ‘Clinical Infectious diseases’ in 2005 had 859 authors. I am sure that coming from different disciplines, each of these authors or their groups must have contributed in some ways to the work. But how does one evaluate each author’s contribution in such a paper even if it got published in a high impact factor journal?

It is now an established fact that in science and engineering fields, interdisciplinary research is considered a Holy Grail that takes knowledge and methods from two or more disciplines to create useful new ideas, processes, or products. In such cases, publications end up with multiple authors. Even then, it is very rare for anyone to be highly skilled and knowledgeable in two or more different disciplines.

A diverse approach to research

Fortunately, in science and engineering, there is a built-in safeguard against impostors trying to impress specialists from different areas with concepts and jargon from other areas, without contributing anything useful. Concepts in science are subject to experimental verification by scientists, and processes or products can be simulated, prototyped, tested and performance evaluated. So, imposters cannot last long in these fields.

Until the mid-90s, this kind of interdisciplinary research was not much favoured. In the 80s, when I commenced my Ph.D. in Biophysics after graduate studies in Physics with electronics as specialization, my research dealt with nucleotides, units of molecules that link to form DNA and RNA. And I was supervised by a Crystallographer, a Chemical Physicist and a Chemist. I truly flummoxed my friends and colleagues with this diverse approach to research.

My initial post-doctoral stint at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, Germany was to understand ‘Molecular self-organization and the origin of life’. As part of my work, I got to collaborate with molecular biologists, organic chemists, photo chemists, mechanical, electronics engineers and microscopists.

During this time, I built my first spectrometer from scratch, and picked up the ability to handle an Atari computer which could only work with German software. For a while, I explored sensory Physiology while working on photoreceptors of invertebrates in collaboration with medical doctors, biologists, a physicist and an electronic engineer. I was labelled the ‘Biophysical Chemist’ of the group – a tag I wore proudly. I prioritized what was relevant to me in widely different disciplines and published my work, too.

Asking the right research questions

In the early 90s on my return to India, I found that ‘interdisciplinary research’ was still considered by many as a treacherous terrain to navigate. Many of the disciplines in natural sciences were steeped in traditional approaches. It was daunting to interact with colleagues conditioned that way. Once a senior researcher from a famous Indian Institute of eminence derisively asked me what Biophysical Chemistry was and asked me if it was a ruse to escape being a specialist in any subject.

Fortunately, the head of my laboratory nurtured my work across multiple disciplines of chemical engineering, biophysics and materials chemistry. When I expressed my apprehensions about being labelled ‘Jane of all trades,’ he counselled me stating, ‘good inter-disciplinary research is less about satisfying concepts of the disciplines involved, and more about asking the right research questions that respected the work that happened in other disciplines.’

Sticking to ‘interdisciplinary research’ I learnt some valuable lessons. I had to deal with some of my senior colleagues who perceived “interdisciplinary-research” as lacking in rigor because they thought the research is not in-depth in one field. This is why they do not consider me a specialist in any field.
But this has motivated me to work hard to create my own ‘identity’ that can balance and be appealing to all disciplines. I have gained by being open to the questions asked by other disciplines about shared subject matters, and by exploring how to integrate my methods into their areas of work. I have tried to nurture my ties with researchers from other disciplines and have sought new perspectives from them to inspire me without compromising on my research focus.

I have tried to weigh the risks and opportunities based on my own goals. Being an interdisciplinary researcher has given me the freedom and flexibility to straddle many disciplines and keep my learning cap on. I am thankful that my research at Gottingen opened the horizon. Any day, I would rather learn and grow and be a Jane of all trades than be a stick in the mud.

  • Aruna Dhathathreyan Aruna Dhathathreyan

Aruna Dhathathreyanis a Professor and Emeritus scientist at CSIR– Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, India. Her fields of work and research include biophysics, biophysical chemistry, and surface sciences. Since 1983 she has been to Germany more than a dozen times and has carried out research in biophysics in Göttingen as a postdoc with a DAAD scholarship. Further stays 1996 at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research, then in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2014. She received an INSA DFG Visiting Fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research (2010). She was among 98 scientists featured in Leelavathi's Daughters, a compendium of female scientists in India created by the Indian Science Academy. Aruna Dhathathreyanis a mentor on the Alumniportal Deutschland and publishes articles about her time in Germany regularly.

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