Interdisciplinary research and education: Big thinking for big challenges

Posted on 18. Apr, 2012 by in In Depth, Issues, Magazine, Research, Students

Dean Paul Peercy

Dean Paul Peercy

The common definition of “discipline” illustrates why the word is so deeply rooted in the lexicon of higher education. Discipline is all about rigorous preparation, self-command, willpower, following a strict regimen—many of the traits that are required in the evolution from student to expert in any chosen academic field.

Yet many of the truly exciting developments in 21st-century higher education are taking place in the spaces where disciplines collide, when new collaborations are formed and creativity thrives. Our students and researchers still need the disciplinary depth to truly master complex subject matter, but that knowledge becomes even more powerful when combined with that of experts from other diverse fields.

In the words of the late composer Leonard Bernstein, interdisciplinary work means “learning to know something by its relation to something else.”  That’s not a luxury, but a necessity, in today’s research environment. Simply put, problems are not neatly confined within disciplines. They don’t respect borders. Large-scale problem-solving will require a blend of solutions ranging from technology and biology to human behavior and public policy.

At UW-Madison, we happen to be very good at this process, as evidenced by one of our newest research facilities, the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID). This building is a monument to interdisciplinary thinking, with a research roster that includes virtually every discipline in engineering rubbing elbows with systems biology, computational technology, epigenetics and applied economics. Just this spring, R&D Magazine named WID the national laboratory of the year for its “push-the-envelope” concepts that support collaborative research.

The College of Engineering is about to embark on another landmark of interdisciplinary research with the 2013 opening of the Wisconsin Energy Institute (WEI). This building will bring together the groundbreaking scientists and engineers affiliated with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the programmatic Wisconsin Energy Institute, and spark collaborations with scientists working on renewable energy, storage, energy systems, fusion and fission, smart grids and energy policy. We believe this building and its associated research network will make a big impact on America’s energy independence.

In the past year, faculty leaders from all engineering departments and I have worked together to define our major college research themes—and without question, all of them require interdisciplinary approaches. The six themes are advancing healthcare, energy independence, environmental sustainability, improving security, advanced manufacturing, and transportation infrastructure. In each theme, we have numerous researchers working together across engineering departments and forging collaborations across campus.

The list of collaborations is far too great to include here, but let me offer two examples. Electrical and computer engineer Hongrui Jiang is doing fascinating work on biological applications of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), including research on self-focusing contact lenses to correct vision in aging adults. Jiang’s team includes faculty from the departments of surgery, ophthalmology, veterinary medicine, materials science, computer science and chemical engineering. And chemical and biological engineer John Yin is studying systems biology— viewing the human body as a complex ecosystem as a way to better understand disease—with the help of scientists in ecology, mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer science.

Engineers, I believe, inherently think in an interdisciplinary way, because of the socially impactful nature of our profession. Take an iconic engineering project such as bridge construction, for example. This is at its core an exercise in structural engineering, but it’s also a tool for urban planning, a driver of economic opportunity, an environmental impact, a cultural landmark, and potentially a work of art.

It will be a better bridge when seen from all perspectives.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.