Saturday, February 12, 2011

Interdisciplinary science

One of the reasons I chose to attend Penn State for grad school was its initiative for promoting interdisciplinary research.  The chemistry department had knocked down all the traditional division barriers (analytical, organic, inorganic, physical, biological) except for categorizing seminars, and most groups fostered relationships and collaborations with labs outside of the department in areas such as engineering, biology, and physics.  I was very drawn to this, and I am glad I was, because I think this is the way research is going.

(P.S. If you want to see something funny and are still on PSU chem's site, go here and wait until the 6th picture shuffles around to get a great and obviously posed glamour shot of my adviser and I "using" a microscope in the middle of a lit room.  BONUS: The biological division button here.)

Photobleaching the "sample"

No longer can one be a socially-inept scientist who hides away in his lab doing research and emerges only to eat or go home.  Funding is tight, and your work must be marketable.  Thus, you must be the one to pitch it.  This is a skill I have sought to attain and perfect, and I have looked upon it with almost as much regard as I gave my technical knowledge when I was getting my Ph.D.  One thing I have learned is that if you love your work, it's conveyed through your presentation and discussion, and people want to talk with you about it, thereby furthering you knowledge and feeding your curiosity.  I don't think this was evident more than in my final year of grad school, when I was presenting at conferences and applying for postdoc jobs.

Though my Ph.D. is in chemistry, I don't do any "traditional" chemistry.  I am a bioanalytical surface chemist, which means my work incorporates elements from 4 out of 5 of those aforementioned divisions, save organic.  My Penn State group of chemists worked with biologists, medical doctors, electrical/chemical engineers, materials scientists, and physicists.  It is so useful, almost like a shortcut, to have someone to explain to you about gate dielectrics and ribozymes.  On the flip side, you've got to be a good communicator in order to teach an "outsider" your language and convey your angle of approach to a certain problem. 

My group here at the U of T is in a similar boat, except we now incorporate all of those different departments in a single group.  I am one of three chemists, the other two being another postdoc and a third-year Ph.D. student.  The rest are biochemists, electrical/mechanical engineers, and even a psychologist (!).  I should also mention that the group is very bottom-heavy; a mass graduation exodus occurred recently, leaving behind one fourth-year Ph.D. student, the third-year Ph.D. student, 6 first-year M.S. students, and 1 first-year Ph.D. student.  And of course, there are us postdocs to round everyone up!   The younger students astutely show their knowledge in their areas of study, and it's obvious that they're already well on their way towards assimilation of different concepts into their core knowledge.  It's a marvelous sight to see, and I don't know if I would recognize it were I not in my position.  So far, I'm really impressed with the U of T and its initiatives towards promotion of interdisciplinary work.

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