Published 30 June 2015 by Jalees Rehman
The Courage to Venture Beyond: Of Polymaths and Multidisciplinarians
Department of Medicine and Department of Pharmacology
University of Illinois at Chicago
“Focus! Focus! Focus! Create a narrow area of scientific expertise in which you excel and develop a national or international reputation for excellence!”
Established scientists often share this sort of advice with their younger peers who are about to embark on their academic career. It isn’t a bad advice and I have known many scientists who have succeeded in academia by following it. Every day, more than a thousand original scientific papers are published. A major aspect of scientific research is placing your own findings into context of already existing knowledge. How is your work different from what is already known? What impact will your work have in your scientific field? Have you developed a new tool or concept that will be of significant value to your peers? To engage in cutting-edge research therefore requires that one stays abreast of the amassing scientific literature, carefully curating which of the numerous published findings are most relevant to one’s own work.
A scientist with too broad of an area of scientific expertise or too many distinct scientific interests may drown in the ocean of newly generated knowledge. Keeping up with the scientific literature and actively conducting experiments in multiple scientific disciplines may take up so much effort that it leaves little time and resources to dig deeply and unearth high-impact knowledge in any one area.
Some scientists devote decades of research to studying a single protein in a cell. Considering the complexity of biological phenomena, a single protein X can supply a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of research questions. How is the synthesis of the protein regulated? Which molecular pathways lead to the degradation of the protein? Which are the proteins that interact with X? Are there specific environmental signals which control the expression of the gene which is transcribed and translated into protein X? How does a transgenic mouse behave when protein X levels are over-expressed in selected organs or tissues? Answering each one of these questions by carefully interrogating all the detailed molecular mechanisms involved can take several years. A scientist who uses her creativity and perseverance in order to develop unique molecular tools and animal models to address these questions will likely receive national or international recognition and a steady stream of research funding for her expertise in all matters relating to protein X.
Yet there are a number of scientists who forsake this traditional path. Such a scientist may start out studying protein X in a cell but after discovering that biomechanical forces regulate the levels of protein X, shift the focus of her research to cellular biomechanics. Her work on biomechanics may then lead to the engineering of novel devices and tools to control biomechanical forces, to pursue broader questions regarding how cells sense mechanical forces and even address philosophical questions about the validity of applying physical concepts of force and tension to biological systems. Protein X may have been the initial trigger for the research but as her research progresses, her interests become broader and integrate various disciplines ranging from molecular biology to engineering and biophysics and protein X may just become a distant memory. Such a multidisciplinary path comes with a greater risk of failure because the scientist will not have any circumscribed area of expertise on which to build an academic reputation and because every transition from one discipline to another requires that the scholar devote an extraordinary amount of effort to acquiring skills and knowledge in the new discipline. But the potential for ground-breaking discoveries is also greater because the scholar’s checkered background and intellectual diversity could lead to a cross-fertilization of ideas from various disciplines and create a whole new area of research.
Polymaths and Multidisciplinarians
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression “polymath” refers to “a person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; an accomplished scholar”. This is a rather broad definition which does not give any specific guidelines as to what qualifies as being “acquainted with many fields of study”. Does one need formal academic training in multiple areas of study to be considered a polymath? Is it a requirement to make original and creative contributions to a multiple disciplines? Perhaps even garner national and international recognition?
When prompted to name individuals who are polymaths, people educated in the European tradition often associate “polymaths with the Renaissance because that era symbolizes the integration of the arts, humanities and sciences and has led to “Renaissance man” being used as a synonym for polymath. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) is a prime example of such a polymath, known not only for his paintings such as The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa, but also his numerous inventions and innovative designs of flying machines as well as his extensive anatomical studies based on the dissection of human corpses.
The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is also a front-runner in the pantheon of polymaths because of his interests in geology, paleontology and optics. During his lifetime, Goethe assembled one of the largest collections of rocks, minerals and fossils ever owned by an individual person, consisting of 18,000 specimens! Even though he is revered as the greatest poet of the German language, Goethe’s longest published work is his treatise on a theory of color, the Farbenlehre. He devoted two decades of his life to studying light and he thought that this 1000-page tome would be his most meaningful contribution to humankind.
In the Farbenlehre, Goethe vehemently disagreed with Newton about the nature of light. According to Newton, white light was a heterogeneous composite of colors and darkness was the absence of light. Goethe, on the other hand, felt that white light was a homogenous entity and that darkness was the polar opposite of light and not just its absence. Goethe also ascribed aesthetic qualities to specific colors such as “beautiful” to red and “useful” to green.
Goethe’s theory of color is not a scientific theory in the conventional sense because it did not offer any clear scientific hypotheses that could be tested and falsified by experiments. This did not prevent Goethe from viciously attacking Newton and those who accepted the Newtonian theory of light and color. In fact a whole portion of Goethe’s Farbenlehre is titled “Polemics” and attempts to document the incompetence and errors of Newton. Some of Goethe’s attacks are so embarrassing that many editions and translations of the Farbenlehre completely omit this portion. After it was published, the Farbenlehre did not gain much traction with scientists in the 19th century because Newton had made a far more compelling case for describing the physical nature of light. However, in recent decades, the Farbenlehre has experienced somewhat of a revival in the academic world. Recent works such as “Goethe’s Way of Science” and “Goethe Contra Newton”, authored by philosophers, physicists and other scholars, have pointed out that Goethe‘s approach to color and light was rooted in his background as a poet. He was not studying light in its physical form but the perception of light, and the Farbenlehre even contains extensive passages about the nature of scientific paradigms. His work is now experiencing a renaissance, if you will, as it is being re-evaluated by psychologists, cognitive scientists and philosophers of science.
Goethe and da Vinci are excellent examples of the creative synergy that arises when individuals are actively engaged in multiple disciplines. By approaching light and color from the perspective of a poet, Goethe stumbled on important scientific questions revolving around the perception of light which were quite distinct from the questions raised by Newton’s work which centered on the physical nature of light. And Goethe’s work as a writer also greatly benefited from his scientific endeavors. It is estimated that Goethe used a vocabulary of roughly 90,000 words in his work, four to five times more than the vocabulary of an average educated German living today and also substantially more than the vocabulary of Shakespeare (estimated at about 30,000 words). It is very likely that Goethe’s extensive readings and work in geology, paleontology, optics as well as his work as a cabinet minister and civil servant greatly enriched his vocabulary and allowed him to tap into words and metaphors that may not have been easily accessible to other poets.
Are the da Vincis and Goethes anachronisms of the past? Many of us still revere the brilliance of the individual who straddles and demonstrates excellence in multiple disciplines and we continue to recognize the value of new knowledge and creative ideas that are formed when supposedly distinct disciplines converge. But we also need to recognize that the nature of knowledge and disciplines is changing. The painter Leonardo da Vinci was one of the few individuals in Europe who was allowed to dissect human corpses and conduct anatomical studies. If he were to design “flying machines” today, it would be reasonable to expect that he first receive training in aeronautical engineering or at the very least perform a comprehensive review of existing designs and document whether his designs would abide by contemporary standards of efficiency and safety.
Our bar for what is an acceptable scholarly contribution today is very different from what it was five centuries ago. Peer review in its current form may have its flaws but it does prevent individuals from pontificating about scholarly topics based on idiosyncratic standards and whims. If Goethe had spent two decades studying the nature of light today and viewed his work as a scholarly endeavor, we would expect him to regularly present his findings at conferences, publish peer reviewed abstracts and papers, and solicit critical input from other scientists at every stage of his work to test whether it was truly up to par.
Because of the dizzying growth of knowledge and technologies available to the modern scholar, most contemporary scientific research is conducted by individuals who are members of teams, in which each team member has years or even decades of training to achieve the required level of mastery. This shift in the nature of how we generate knowledge in order to accommodate the growing complexity of knowledge also requires that we rethink our veneration of the age-old “polymath”, a person who as an individual achieves recognition and fame in a multitude of disciplines. A more apt term for today’s polymath may be a “multidisciplinarian”, an individual who is actively engaged in multiple scholarly, artistic or creative disciplines either as an individual or as a member of multidisciplinary teams.
Martin Chalfie received the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering and developing green fluorescent protein and is a great example of a contemporary multidisciplinarian. He sees himself as a neurogeneticist, but routinely collaborates with physicists, engineers, biologists and physicians to study sensors.
“I should emphasize that I have not become an expert in each of these areas. In fact, one of the terrific consequences of working in several different areas is that I get to learn from and work with other scientists “, he says in a recent essay for the Lindau blog.
Using a newer expression such as multidisciplinarian may also help remove some of the other connotations associated with the polymath. The historical association of polymaths with the Renaissance also links it to an age of patriarchy in which men but not women were considered to be scholars. The expression “Renaissance man” as a synonym for polymath reminds us of this gender bias. When the staff of the British magazines The Economist and Intelligent Life profiled 20 contemporary polymaths, they did not include a single woman on the list. The British law professor and novelist Alexander McCall Smith made the list, whereas the accomplished philosopher, novelist, essayist and professor of creative writing Rebecca Goldstein did not.
Merely switching from the expression “polymath” to “multidisciplinarian” is obviously not going to change existing prejudices or biases but it symbolizes that a contemporary view of multidisciplinarity ought to be more inclusive and take into account a team-based approach to scholarly endeavors than historical concepts which primarily centered on individuals.
The Cornerstones of Multidisciplinarity: Courage and Humility
How do we define multidisciplinarity today? The very nature of multidisciplinarity defies a precise definition, but a key feature of multidisciplinarity is the active engagement in scholarly, artistic or creative endeavors involving multiple disciplines. Active is the key word here. We would probably not consider a molecular biologist who enjoys watching TV documentaries about quantum physics and listens to classical music a multidisciplinarian. A more active engagement would take the form of conducting experiments, presenting papers or performing on stage. Such active engagement also comes with the risk of rejection and failure. This brings us to one of the key characteristics of a multidisciplinarian: courage.
By leaving the beaten path, the multidisciplinarian will invariably find herself in a situation where she is a novice. A physicist who embarks on studies of epigenetic regulation in cells, mathematicians who begin writing poetry or physicians who engineer novel devices not only have to learn a whole new set of skills, they also have to confront doubts that some of their specialist colleagues have regarding their qualifications. More established peers with narrow areas of expertise may reject the ideas of the multidisciplinarian because these are plain naïve, or because they be too far ahead of their time. Physicians who work as basic scientists are often plagued by self-doubt, not knowing whether they can achieve true excellence in medicine and science. The intellectual curiosity and restlessness which triggers the desire to venture beyond the boundaries of one’s primary discipline can only be sustained with a strong measure of courage and at times even over-confidence to overcome the inevitable episodes of disappointment, rejection and failure. On the other, it is equally important that this courage and over-confidence not turn into arrogance. The courage of a multidisciplinarian has to be paired with the humility of recognizing one’s own limitations and seeking appropriate guidance in order to overcome these limitations. The lack of introspection and humility in Goethe’s polemics against Newton make it very difficult to see Goethe as a role model for multidisciplinarians.
The physicist Steven Chu is a multidisciplinarian who epitomizes both courage and humility. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1997 for developing methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light, but the breadth of his research interests are astonishing. Chu has introduced methods to visualize and manipulate single biomolecules, measure the force on actin filaments inside a cell and the mechanisms of how ribosomes “proofread” to ensure the accuracy of translated proteins, all in collaboration with biologists and physiologist from all around the world. One of the most remarkable demonstrations of his courage to take on new challenges was his acceptance of the post to become the U.S. Secretary of Energy in 2009. During his tenure as the head of the Department of Energy, there was a doubling of renewable energy deployment in the U.S. and solar energy deployment even increased 10-fold.
Despite these extraordinary successes in so many disciplines, he retains a core sense of humility and says “I have been a scattered dilettante for my entire life”.
Encouraging Multidisciplinarity in a Scientific Laboratory
As appealing as the idea of multidisciplinarity may sound, implementing it in a contemporary scientific environment can be challenging. It takes years of meticulously designed experiments to address specific scientific questions. How can one afford to vacillate between scientific disciplines, arts and humanities and still end up with tangible, defined scientific results?
Eric Betzig is a physicist who received the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his ground-breaking work on super-resolution microscopy which has allowed biologists to study the interactions of individual protein molecules inside a cell. Betzig clarifies that multidisciplinary scientific work does not mean giving up focus. Instead, periods of intense focus alternate with periods of searching for inspiration from other disciplines.
“In my personal experience, it has been valuable at certain times of my life to seek out information and ideas across disciplines, and at other times to focus monomaniacally in isolation on a single problem. The former is necessary to make sure I choose the right problem and have the right tools at my disposal, and the latter is necessary to force both my conscious and sub-conscious mind to give 100% effort to finding an answer”, he says.
William Moerner, who shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Eric Betzig, describes a deeply personal relationship with the arts, especially music. In his experience, the listening to music and performing music excites and stimulates the brain. Like Chalfie, he too, elaborated on his views on interdisciplinarity in a short essay for the Lindau blog.
Each multidisciplinary scientist has to develop her own path to grapple with the challenges of multidisciplinary work and many scientists may find a more focused scientific career more appealing than the life of a “scattered dilettante”. In my own cell biology laboratory, we try to foster multidisciplinary thinking without necessarily forcing it onto my lab members. At the end of a weekly laboratory meeting in which experimental data is presented, we devote a brief period of time to discussing a book (fiction or non-fiction) that a lab member has recently read or touching on philosophical questions that relate to the broader scientific enterprise such as the nature of causality or experimentation. These are not meant to be exhaustive discussions but just serve as gentle nudges that it may be fun to engage in various creative and intellectual enterprises outside of cell biology. More recently, I asked my graduate students to write science-related haikus.
Megan Rexius-Hall is a bioengineering Ph.D. student who designs microfluidic devices to study intercellular communication and is specifically asking the question of how stem cells undergoing differentiation into a mature cell type communicate with their undifferentiated neighbors:
Our nearest neighbors
By their fate or commitment
– Megan Rexius-Hall (Ph.D. student in Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago)
Sarah Krantz is a Pharmacology Ph.D. student investigating whether inflamed cells activate anti-inflammatory mechanisms to ensure that there is some defined endpoint to the inflammatory process.
Hot red fire burns strong
Searing foes but for too long
Calls rain and lives on
– Sarah Krantz (Ph.D. student in Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago)
I am not sure that there is a direct tangible benefit of encouraging graduate students to write haikus or reading books outside of science. The students definitely learned to appreciate the power of language, imagery and metaphors. Distilling the essence of their research project down to a three verse haiku may also help them remember the “big picture” of their respective projects. But the most important feedback I received from the students was that they enjoyed thinking about the haikus and tinkering with the words to perfect their poem. Isn’t it the joy of discovery and playful tinkering that makes us want to be scientists?
Note: This essay is part of a series of articles on the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings Blog which constitute the Multidisciplinarity Forum. Please also read the post “Thoughts on Multidisciplinarity” by the Nobel Laureate William Moerner in which he describes how the importance of multidisciplinarity in his scientific work and the importance of music and theater in his life as well as the essay “Forced Multidisciplinarity” by the Nobel Laureate Martin Chalfie in which he writes about the excitement he feels when engaging in multidisciplinary work, often in collaboration with other scholars.
We encourage you to share comments about your own thoughts and experiences with multidisciplinarity below. And if you want, please feel free to post haikus about your own scientific work!