By Shana R. Spindler, PhD; Interview by Kristofor Langlais, PhD
As trends in science evolve, postdoctoral training must be guided in new directions. NICHD Connection contributor Kris Langlais discussed the future of science and scientific training with NICHD Director Dr. Alan E. Guttmacher.
"Pay attention to the fact that the future of science is interdisciplinary work," emphasized Guttmacher, a concept that he would underscore throughout the conversation. Early in Guttmacher's career, as a medical student, he found his biochemistry professor reading a physics journal. When Guttmacher questioned this seemingly mixed-up activity, his professor simply replied that some of his most important contributions stemmed from thinking about a problem from the viewpoint of another discipline. By reading outside his own field, he was able to gain new tools and develop novel ideas.
This small, but powerful, conversation struck a chord in Guttmacher. "I've seen this over and over again...a multidisciplinary team that brings together different tools and approaches, or the really fascinating people who have the ability themselves to do that. I think in terms of training, but I also think about the future of science in general, it's how we construct appropriately with these multidisciplinary teams and perspectives." He continued to explain that while a trainee is expected to develop a great depth of expertise in a certain focused area, the trainee should also strive to develop fluency in other scientific fields as well.
Finding the balance between the traditional, narrowly focused project and more broad interdisciplinary training can be difficult. Providing specific training awards that require co-mentoring or emphasizing collaborations could help accomplish this, explained Guttmacher, but ultimately he believes that it's up to the individual mentor and trainee to find creative ways to incorporate interdisciplinary training. "It's not that you have to have expertise in multiple areas," he stressed, "it's to have the fluency."
The NICHD serves as a unique breeding ground for interdisciplinary work. By co-locating diverse groups of people, such as the NICHD biophysics group composed of biologists and physicists, the institute can affect both training and conducting science in a multidisciplinary setting. Guttmacher sees a research model that forgoes the historical departmental structure for an assembly of people who have very different backgrounds, but are thinking about the same problems.
When asked what he perceives will be the next great interdisciplinary area of scientific research, Guttmacher responded that the intersection between genomics and environment is an exciting subject of investigation. "We have a historic opportunity to understand how genetic elements and environmental ones—using those terms both rather broadly—combine to create health and disease," said Guttmacher, "and that's what the fundamental biology of the next few decades is." Guttmacher envisions a scientific community that defines human diseases by biological pathways and causes, rather than disease symptoms.
The ability to address issues as complex as genetic susceptibility to environmental influences requires substantial amounts of information. The exponential accumulation rate of genomic, molecular, and environmental data makes the computational aspect of data analysis ever more important. "If somebody is going to be a really expert scientist in years to come, even if they are not going to specialize in bioinformatics, they need to be fluent in it," said Guttmacher.
The take-home message: The new trend in science is interdisciplinary, both out of necessity and intrigue, and this trend requires a model of training that can accommodate the breadth of experiences a trainee would need to succeed. Based upon Guttmacher's long-held and sincere dedication to multidisciplinary work, a major goal of the NICHD leadership is to provide ample interdisciplinary training opportunities.