photograph by Blair Bunting

Into the White Spaces

Science Training Needs Fewer Boundaries.

Like other science graduates in the 1960s, James Collins accepted that research was largely a solitary pursuit with results taught as a collection of facts by the “sage on the stage.” No more, says the ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University (ASU). The balance is shifting from singular experts doing independent research to a mix of individual and team approaches.

Learning should not be confined by disciplinary boundaries. I realized this when I was investigating the role of infectious disease in declining amphibian populations. Through collaboration with a dozen scientists in immunology, mathematics, veterinary medicine, physiology, and molecular biology, we tested the conditions under which infectious disease might be the cause of extinction. The challenge to solve this theoretical and practical problem took me on a journey into the white spaces between traditional disciplines.

Knowing when to seek the aid of other experts is a vital skill for students to learn—just as an engineer must consult others to construct a safe bridge or electrical system, students cannot limit themselves to discrete silos.

This educational approach is so important that, in my 2011 fall semester ecology class at ASU, I challenged students with real-life, interdisciplinary-based problems. Each week a colleague and I posted a research paper on ASU’s “Blackboard” website and the class discussed the complexities behind a global problem. During a class on evolutionary biology, for example, I integrated historical references to the black plague and HIV/AIDS and suggested students read multidisciplinary titles by scientists such as Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel.

In discussing climate change, I directed the class to manage a hypothetical southern Arizona species that moves farther up a mountain as prevailing temperatures rise. Students see how personal values—determined in part by religion, ethics, philosophy, and literature—can have an impact on policy decisions that integrate scientific results.

James Collins discusses the future of science education.

I also use mentoring to advance an interdisciplinary approach. I remember encouraging Kathryn Richards-Hrdlicka, a biology major conducting research in my lab, to investigate fungal pathogens in lowland leopard frogs, a project that took her into microbial sequencing techniques. To design her experiments, she had to learn advanced statistics. Now, as she pursues her doctoral degree at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, she has specialized in genomics. This lengthy scholarly jump into the white spaces has helped her see the link between ecology and genetics, sparking a career interest in conservation biology and policy making.

Of course, nurturing interdisciplinary research and education requires financial incentives for both students and faculty members. When I was chair of Biology at ASU, faculty members received support in areas such as urban ecology for an Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program that required collaboration between biologists, geologists, and social scientists. To encourage a more positive perception of coauthorship, graduate students cowrote a chapter of their dissertation with a peer from another department. In another case, fellow professor Jim Elser received funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health to extend his interdisciplinary ecological stoichiometry theory (which posits the dynamic interactions between living organisms and chemical elements such as phosphorus and iron) to human cancer.

Research projects such as these take advantage of leading-edge communication techniques and networking. For example, in 2008 when researchers, including HHMI investigator David Baker and colleagues at the University of Washington, explored protein folding, they brought in computer scientists and biochemists to devise the online game Foldit. They opened it to a national and global audience, which succeeded in discovering new algorithms. An August 2010 Nature article credits Baker along with eight other scientists and Foldit players worldwide.

The Internet has made possible online classes, which have the potential to push the interdisciplinary envelope further. I remember when as a professor I wanted to advance my math skills, but these digital options did not exist. So, I attended a traditionally taught linear algebra class several times a week. Now students can enroll in online classes on a need-to-know basis and acquire the subject content to help them seek appropriate collaborations and solve important problems. As we move into the 21st century, the thoughtful, creative use of online resources will undoubtedly be a source of great change for scientific research and education.

Collins is Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment at ASU.