Passion, Silos and Friction: a personal account of free roaming between disciplines

There are grants, there are great words written, there seems to be strong support, but how working between disciplines really work? Let me tell you at least how this has worked for me. This is a long read, but if you do not wish to go at the bottom of it, my advice (sadly) is the advice I once received and did not follow (with no regrets): consolidate your career in one discipline/department/subject (silo?), then you will be free to roam between disciplines at a later stage.

Ralls_Texas_Grain_Silos_2010
Does science works in silos? (picture from Wikipedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A very early choice to work across discipline* | As a young boy, alongside sports, I picked-up electronics and computers as hobbies leading me to select scientific studies at high school. I then matured a keen interest in physics and biology. When the time came to decide which courses to follow at University, I  wanted to combine these interests, applying Physics to understand Life. However, I was undecided if to pursue this growing passion through studies in medicine, engineering, physics or biology. In a very uncharacteristic move for me, as a shy youngster from a family of non-academics and from a town without a university, I found myself sneaking into the Department of Physics at the not-too-far University of Genoa asking to speak with a scientist to get advice. I still remember that a Dr Rossi at the CNR in Genoa explained to me how I could approach my interest following different paths. While I never met again Dr Rossi and I do not recall the details of my visit, on that day and after speaking with him,  I decided to study Physics and to become a researcher in biophysics.

Here I got into the first silo | Genoa was an excellent place where to study biophysics as it was one of the towns where biophysics started in Italy and it had a mature and vibrant biophysical community. However, I got an early warning about what meant to work across disciplines. Having opted for Physics, I first had to become a proper physicist, well-grounded in mathematics and theoretical physics. As I generally did well at high school with not too much studying, investing most of my spare time in tinkering with computers, electronics and doing athletics, University was a shock. With no tutoring and no advice (today things have changed), the first two years at University were brutal for me, incapable to cope with the workload and seeing around me, not only friends that were doing well but many who were dropping out (I believe we had a 50% drop-out). Until one day, seating on the floor of the library at Physics… studying maths from a book grabbed from the shelves… breathing pages of old books… when I finally got it. I found my way to study maths, my way to study 24/7. After that mountain was climbed, I picked the few – very formative – courses related to biophysics I could and I finally completed my studies. Although University could have been simpler for me with the tutoring and help that nowadays are available,  I am grateful that I was forced to have a very strong theoretical background – no compromise allowed – and I am happy for that first choice of doing Physics at Genoa. However, the first warning was there, unnoticed at the time. To study Life with the tools of Physics, I had studied quantum mechanics, advanced mathematics, particle physics, but I had not a single course in biology or biochemistry. This, despite the fact that what you would nowadays call my master thesis was a year-long experimental work in neurosciences. The fact that I was doing biophysics in a very interdisciplinary environment,  partially concealed the fact that science (still) works in silos.

Training at the interface | My choice for a PhD was a bit more random. At the time, I knew I wanted to work with proteins (very vaguely) and I had strong training in fluorescence microscopy. While the search for a laboratory where to do a PhD should be done differently, once again without guidance except for Altavista and Lycos (read as ‘Google’ back then) I identified the first batch of laboratories working with proteins and optics. As my first initial and unplanned search landed me immediate job offers, I was attracted by a very charismatic scientist, Prof. Fred Wouters at the  European Neuroscience Institute in Goettingen. My duty was to develop biochemical imaging tools (FRET/FLIM) to study protein-protein interactions relevant to neurodegeneration. At the same time, I enrolled at the University of Utrecht, under the supervision of Prof. Hans Gerritsen, with whom I later obtained my PhD in Physics. Thanks to my struggles at Genoa, I was able to fly, build microscopes, write theory, apply imaging tools to solve biological problems and I completed a successful and productive PhD, by the end of which I was able to do tissue culture and molecular biology as well. Finishing up, on a long train journey to visit my partner who was working in Bonn (also a scientist), I asked myself what I wanted to do and the answer, since then unchanged, became clear: study how cells process information to take decisions by advancing microscopy tools dedicated to the study of biochemical pathways. In that moment I committed to work at the interface and to do both physics and biology.

Swapping disciplines and subjects, the untold dangers | The move for my first real post-doctoral experience was once again insufficiently planned career-wise. At the time, I started to be introduced at talks or in conversations as “one of the top experts in FRET” or “one of the few scientists who can handle biology and physics equally well”. Young experts working across disciplines, particularly with a background in physics and – I suppose today – in Mathematics and Computing, do not have problems to find a job at post-doctoral level. I sent two applications, got two job offers, opted for the one in Cambridge as my wife wished to apply to a lab there. The science (despite not my focus that was still neuroscience) and the environment were very interesting. My work was the attempt to falsify a homeostatic model of red blood cell infected by P. falciparum (the pathogen causing malaria).  Once again I was working between disciplines, affiliated to the Dept. of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology supervised by Prof. Clemens Kaminski and to the Dept. of Physiology, Development and Neurosciences supervised by Dr. Virgilio Lew. Once again, grateful for the training received in Genoa, I flew and I had a very successful and productive post-doctoral experience with my colleagues. However, I started to notice a few more issues.

First, despite the interest and the success, the move to malaria research was not strategic for my final goal and had potentially weakened my profile in the neurosciences. Second, the more senior you become, the more politics counts to seize a position, and without the shelter of a chosen silo (either physics or biology), one might be a bit more at risk. I looked after the former issue seizing an EPSRC Life Science Interface fellowship that I wrote to develop biophotonics tools to investigate the physiological role and interaction of some proteins involved in neurodegeneration.

An unexpected and exciting switch to cancer research | A few months into the fellowship, I was offered to move my fellowship at the MRC Cancer Unit (back then known as the MRC Cancer Cell Unit) where I became, in all effects, a staff scientist. The request was clear, refocus my work to cancer research. EPSRC agreed, and I welcomed the requests as this was strategic to achieve exactly what I planned a few years before, i.e. to study cell decisions by advancing biochemical imaging technologies. My third change of disease model, this time cancer or, more specifically, early oncogenesis, was both very good and bad for me. Very good, scientifically, as it permitted me to align perfectly my scientific ambitions to a disease model where it made perfect sense (cell decisions in cancer are very important and relevant to study). Bad, career-wise, as I once again changed subject therefore further weakening my profile. However, the offer seemed good also in terms of career progression and therefore I accepted. For the third time in a row, my fellowship was a success and productive, achieving my set goals which were, however, more related to advancing technologies while I was getting retrained in cancer biology.

The paradox of the praise of inter-disciplinary research and the silos-like organization of academia | Science works in silos, it still does. These silos communicate, exchange expertise, and they do contribute to beautiful cross-disciplinary work but they are still silos, particularly career-wise. This more or less strongly compartmentalized operation is reflected in the difficulties to review grants, papers, career progression of interdisciplinary work or people at the interface, as discussed in the many articles published on this topic. For now, let me just report a couple of specific events that describes one aspect of the problem.

One day I was at a funding workshop during which several colleagues delivered talks about inter-disciplinary science. One stated that there are excellent people who can do both biology and physics, referring to them as ‘hybrids’. He expressed his support for these hybrids and stated that, as they are rare, we have to fund collaboration between departments. After this comment – delivered by a scientist I have a lot of respect for – I was simply feeling great. Then other speakers clarified how they do not believe in individuals working interdisciplinary but they expressed the need to just collaborate across departments. This – of course – was quite a shock for me. So accustomed to read and hear praises for interdisciplinary work and striving at the interface despite the occasional hic-up and emerging ‘career frictions’, the pieces of the puzzle came together after that event.

The large majority of the Universities, as far as I can tell, are still organized in mono-disciplinary Departments. Even when individual Departments or Institutes are very inter-disciplinary, with biologists, clinicians, chemists, physicists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians working shoulder-to-shoulder, you should ask how much disciplinary diversity exists amongst the principal investigators, particularly the tenured academics. If the spread of disciplines suddenly shrinks to a few very related backgrounds, you would have a clearer picture of how interdisciplinary work is rewarded.

This is summarized by a comment I once heard at a conference. After a number of talks about magnetic resonance imaging at the University hospital, and the praise of mathematicians (PhDs and post-docs) who contributed so much to the progress, one person from the audience popped the magic question: “which career perspective do you offer to these young mathematicians without whom this progress could not have been achieved?”. The response was delivered bluntly, honestly and respectfully: “None. We do not have possibilities for career advancement for mathematicians but most of our PhDs and post-docs after working with us do well in industry”.

I am absolutely sure there are plenty of exceptions to what I am describing. However, I do not think I would be too wrong to warn you, perhaps a younger-me, of the risks in leaving the shelter provided by a well-established silo, at least from a career perspective. A silo where career structures might be clearer and career progression might be still very difficult but more ‘natural’.

Am I in the wrong silo? |  The last chapter of my story (for the time being) is still writing itself. More importantly for those two of you young readers landing on this page, I should clarify that it is a story were many plots get entangled. I wished to answer questions such as “how was your experience working at the interface of life and physical sciences?” or “how was for you swapping between different disciplines”. However, the longer you stay in academia, other issues arise such as reaching job security, finding a good balance between family and work, maintaining/finding/expanding resources (people, funds, space, instrumentation,…), supervising/mentoring people, finding a balance between research and other academic duties, etcetera. These and other important aspects of our work are common to any scientist, irrespective of how many disciplines or subjects they touch. However, working at the interface between disciplines adds – in my opinion – a little bit of friction to most of these processes.

I am doing biomedical research in a cancer research institute, I love it and I enjoy working with my colleagues. However, I am a biophysicist with a strong track record in biophotonics, not much track record in cancer biology. After the successful completion of my EPSRC fellowship, I was expecting to get into a tenure track position with dedicated resources. However, the new (however obvious it might appear writing it down now) condition I had to confront was to have a track record in cancer research possibly with high impact factor journals. Retreat to the ‘shelter’ of Physics departments or competing on this new ground of biomedical research on the game (that I do not even like nor endorse***) of impact factors? While the choice should be obvious, I personally focused only on the scientific ambitions, trying to establish what I like to call a “single-cell systems biology of cellular decisions” and I opted, somehow reluctantly, to play the game. I am sure that others would have handled the situation better. Personally, I enslaved all my physics/engineering/mathematics to the solution of biological questions and stopped publishing specialist work. At the same time, caving-in to peer pressure, I focused on preparing manuscripts that, potentially, might be published in high impact factor journals entering a very long cycle of ‘stashing’ data seeking to have the most solid work and the most interesting narrative (I shiver spelling it out, and I corrected this by using pre-print servers and resuming publishing specialist work).

Not only the work I excel into is invisible to most biomedical colleagues, erroneously tagging it ‘just technology or methodological’. I mistakenly reinforced this trend by starting to bury a large part of my work in the supporting information of would-be high impact-factor journal papers. Somehow, the need to fit in my environment, the expectation of peers in cancer biology, referees and panels, made me behave as if I should be ashamed of the work I am actually best known for. The issue is not my institution, certainly not the very supportive colleagues. Perhaps I am simply in the wrong silo in an academic environment that works as communicating silos. By now, however, I would be in the wrong silo in most academic silos and I shall continue attempting to prove there is a reason to have some ‘hybrids’ working at the interface between disciplines.

A war of attritions |  I shall conclude with a comment on something I believe is important for anyone that is ‘different’ in an academic environment, something I will expand upon in the future in a different context. In any very competitive environment, and Academia as I know it is highly competitive, the best might emerge. However, people of the same quality will experience different frictions. For example, even in the absence of outright discrimination, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, physical ability or even regional accent might each result in a additional friction while climbing up in career depending on the environment**.  Working at the interface between disciplines, or swapping discipline, will help to make you unique but, at the same time, it might add significant friction to your walk through Academia. While I have no regrets and I love – as a physicist – working on cancer biology in a biomedical research campus, I wished to warn those scientists willing to do the same of the possible hidden risks. Of course, this is just my story, but there is plenty of research out there showing how difficult is to work across disciplines for both individuals and teams.

You will love breaking free from the cages of disciplines. You will feel strained by the absence of a safe shelter.

So, perhaps, the solution is one I was advised a decade ago, the advice I neglected as I assumed was given for self-interest. You might want to first establish yourself within a single discipline, be either physics or biology for example. Once you will have a well-established career, you will be able to use resources across disciplines.

That was not for me, I am a ‘hybrid’ after all.

 

***

NOTES

* Be aware that in this blog-post I use various terms to refer to working across disciplines (inter, cross, multi, etcetera) I do this in a very colloquial way.

** I do not intend to compare the issue of inter-disciplinary research to the struggle of asserting civil rights! My point here is simply that in the absence of outright discrimination (for those environments where this might be applicable) unconscious bias might remain thus adding some friction to the career of people. Bias against multi-disciplinary research is well-characterized in the literature and, I argue, this bias is yet another friction that adds on to the normal challenges in academic progression.

*** I should clarify that I do not have anything against high impact factor journals. They are a business and they do it well. Moreover, they often provide a great editorial input and production assistance. However, I am critical on the use of such journals in Academia that, in practise and in many cases, slows down the discovery process.

Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

Leave a Reply