Physics Today article highlights Teri W. Odom’s “road to interdisciplinary research”

By Anindita Mullick

April 03, 2019

An undergraduate takes lessons from four scientists whose research combines physics and biology.

EVANSTON, Ill.—As a child in Romania, Réka Albert found dual passions in math and physics. She was fascinated by how one could “understand a phenomenon by writing out its equation.” At university she began specializing in the field of networks, analyzing interconnected systems such as business contacts and ecosystems through mathematical modeling and simulations.

But during her PhD studies at the University of Notre Dame, Albert’s love of networks led her into an unexpected field: cell biology. Until that point she had little experience with biology, which she viewed as a discipline full of “descriptions and facts.” However, as she delved into her research, she found that networks were able to efficiently map out the systems and processes inside cells. Now, as a researcher and professor at Penn State University, Albert collaborates with cell biologists and doctors to identify and block signal transduction networks found in cancerous cell

Over the past few decades, researchers have increasingly combined seemingly disparate science disciplines, as Albert has done with networks and cell biology, to study specific problems. As an undergraduate biochemistry student, I see research labs advertising internships in biophysics and computational biology, and I encounter classes like “Mathematics for Life Sciences” and “Fundamentals of Physics for Biologists.” With course offerings like these expanding at universities and collaborations like Albert’s becoming the norm, a new world has been opened for scientists, present and future, to explore.

To learn more about interdisciplinary collaborations, I interviewed Albert and three other researchers who work at the intersections of physics, biology, and medicine. I wanted to find out the series of steps they took to tackle specific research goals while breaking down the traditional divisions between science disciplines. Despite their different pathways and research efforts, they have similar feelings about interdisciplinary research and overlapping advice for those thinking about pursuing a scientific career.

Biology first captured the interest of Randall Kamien, now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, through his study of liquid crystals. After reading a paper that connected liquid crystalline phases to biological molecules such as DNA, Kamien began studying cellular fibers, particularly their physiological responses to manipulation of the environment. Kamien summarizes his interdisciplinary research as the search for disruptions from the natural state. To him, whenever rules of chemistry and physics are seemingly broken, it’s a sign that biological systems are spending engery to go against a natural equilibrium. Finding out what activates cellular mechanisms is a vital part of understanding how a cell functions and interacts with its surroundings. And knowing how to identify disruptions is important for pinpointing when and where such activity is taking place.

Besides asking the researchers about their interdisciplinary projects, I also sought their advice. How should I and other aspiring scientists pick a field? The researchers’ responses were unanimous. When choosing a field or project for serious study, they recommend pursuing personal interests and passions. That point is evident in the stories of the two others I interviewed, professor and chemistry chair Teri Odom of Northwestern University and professor Dagmar Sternad of Northeastern University, neither of whom planned initially to study the physical sciences.

Odom came to Stanford University as a premedical student, but she became increasingly drawn to quantum mechanics during her undergraduate studies and graduate research at Harvard University. Similarly, Sternad graduated from the Technical University of Munich in Germany as a movement science major; her first experience with engineering and physics came during her PhD research at the University of Connecticut for a project on movement control. Despite their relatively late starts, both Odom and Sternad now conduct research that relies heavily on mixing physical concepts with medicine. Odom works in materials science and develops nanolasers for biomedical devices; Sternad devises equations to quantify human behaviors and movements.

Although Odom’s and Sternad’s paths to interdisciplinary research differed from Kamien’s and Albert’s, all four made their careers out of taking on projects that engaged and challenged them. As Sternad puts it, “Work to find a field where you feel motivated to pose the questions and not just answer the questions posed to you.”

To lay the groundwork for success, the researchers advise aspiring interdisciplinary scientists to develop additional skills. For instance, they strongly recommend that students develop their ability to communicate, especially through scientific writing and public speaking. Given how important presentations, papers, and grant proposals are to a scientist, communication skills can make or break a career.

Odom also recommends exploring the social sciences to expand one’s understanding of humanity, as it gives scientists a way to connect their research to the betterment of society. Most important, the researchers advocate keeping an open mind and becoming a lifelong learner. To be successful in their careers, the four researchers had to step outside their degrees and study parts of science to which they previously had little exposure.

As an undergrad, I am immersed in an environment full of choice but also feel pressured to quickly home in on a path to determine my career and future. After talking to the researchers, I’ve come to realize that as people move on in their careers, there are lots of opportunities to take risks and try something new while still managing to achieve success. Especially within interdisciplinary research, there are so many paths available to explore. Ultimately, it’s up to me to decide which one I take.

Read the full article in Physics Today.

The International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University is an umbrella organization that represents and unites more than $1 billion in nanotechnology research, education and supporting infrastructure.