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Bridging Science logoJenna Shapiro is a PhD Candidate in the NIH Oxford-Cambridge Scholars Program. She splits her time between the Oyen lab in Cambridge and the Stratakis lab at the NICHD, combining engineering and biology to study how cells interact with the extracellular matrix in bone. In September of 2013, Science Careers published Jenna’s “In Person” narrative about training as an interdisciplinary scientist. Her essay, “Can I Get a Ph.D. in Collaboration?” explored the nuances of bridging disciplines in lieu of a single field of study. Jenna has graciously agreed to answer a few questions for The NICHD Connection about her experience with interdisciplinary science: 

When you began your PhD research, did you enter the program knowing you wanted to become an interdisciplinary scientist? What prompted you to go down that road?

Yes—I have been interested in the relationship between engineering and biology since high school. I had the opportunity to work in Dr. Kim Anderson's laboratory in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Kentucky during my senior year. That experience gave me the push to explore biological problems from an engineering background—I ended up majoring in chemical engineering, and minoring in biology. When I was looking for graduate school programs, I wanted to continue in the same path, and really searched for opportunities that would allow me to do so. That’s why I was thrilled to enter the NIH-Cambridge Program.

What is your typical day like as an interdisciplinary scientist?

I wouldn't say that it's terribly different from the typical day of any scientist. I'll do literature searching, experimental planning and execution, data analysis, writing, editing, etc. I would say that I may just approach these tasks from a slightly different mindset, knowing that there are a few other variables I should be looking at when designing experiments, or other journals that I should be reading.

In your article, you describe the language barrier between scientists of different disciplines. You go on to say it’s not only a language barrier, but also a different way to approach problems (top-down versus bottom-up). How have you reconciled these differences between your two labs? Are you ever given opposing guidance depending on the mentor?

Sometimes I feel like the problem approach can be more of an obstacle than the languages of the different fields. You can always pick up jargon, but problem solving seems to be more ingrained as a particular mindset and potentially more difficult to change. In my particular situation, I’m fortunate. One supervisor (Dr. Stratakis) is a clinician-scientist, and the other (Dr. Oyen) is an engineer. I feel like clinicians and engineers both operate from the top-down approach: have a problem in mind, then do what you need to solve it. Clinicians could just be considered medical engineers—designing solutions for patient-oriented problems. I don’t feel that I’m given opposing guidance. Depending on the primary field of the particular project I’m working on, I defer to one mentor or the other, and this seems to work well.

How do you handle the technical balance required to be an interdisciplinary scientist?

I'm fortunate in that tissue engineering originated as an interdisciplinary field. In this way, the majority of the literature I read focuses on multiple aspects of a problem, for example, exploring how the material composition of a scaffold can influence cell proliferation. There's an inherent interplay between the different disciplines. If I want to know something more about the engineering aspects, then I might read more articles in engineering-related journals. The same applies if I need to focus on signaling pathways, or genetics. Of course, it helps that I have the support from both of my labs, the two of which specialize in very disparate things.

Jenna Shapiro in the labDo you ever feel like you experience “imposter” syndrome more than others given that you need to become literate in two fields?

I've definitely experienced imposter syndrome. I think that comes as a function of working in such well-renowned research institutions as NIH and Cambridge. I don’t think it happens any more frequently because of my interdisciplinary work. If anything, it may lessen it, because I know that I can draw from a wider, if not necessarily deeper, pool of knowledge.  I have to remind myself that I’m a student—this is all a process of learning, acquiring, and assimilating information, and I’m not expected to be an expert…yet.

In your experience, do you see more of your peers entering interdisciplinary research? Do you see this becoming a field in itself—for example, departments seeking “bilingual scientists” who have the ability to foster collaborations between programs?

I still see a good mix. I feel like the choice to do interdisciplinary work is very personality-dependent—perfect for those of us who don’t enjoy being decisive. Science is like being a kid in a candy store—all of the fields have something fantastic to offer, how can you choose just one? The interdisciplinary scientists are the ones buying the 5 lb variety packs.

I don’t know if “interdisciplinary” will necessarily become its own field. By definition, it’s drawing from the strict disciplines. I think it will be beneficial for departments to employ interdisciplinary scientists, not only to collaborate with other programs, but also to bring in different viewpoints and approaches to the work already being done (not just because I want a job!)

What do you think is the biggest barrier for someone who wants to get into interdisciplinary science and what is your advice?

I think the biggest barrier might be determining what level of knowledge and familiarity is necessary for each of the fields. It’s so easy to feel like you have to be an expert in everything—you don’t, but at least a baseline level of understanding and an awareness of what’s happening in the field is critical. I think the best way to accomplish this is to read the literature, and talk to colleagues. 

As you know, the NICHD is a melting pot of disciplines. As an interdisciplinary scientist, what’s your best piece of advice to NICHD fellows who are collaborating with scientists in a different field?

I think it all really comes down to communication. Talk to the people around you. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to look like you don’t understand. I think the British model may have an advantage here—somehow a cup of tea in the afternoon facilitates some amazing discussions. Perhaps it’s the casual environment, or the opportunity to step away from the desk or bench for a few minutes, but I’ve seen some excellent ideas come from just chatting to people. (Maybe NICHD teatime wouldn’t be amiss?)

Check out Jenna’s full “In Person” essay at https://www.science.org/content/article/can-i-get-phd-collaboration.