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The Minefield of Multidisciplinary Work

Posted on January 9, 2008

Megan R. Gunnar (bio) encourages young researchers to nurture an independent identity while working collaboratively.


The mantra these days at NIH, at our universities, everybody’s getting the message that you need to be multidisciplinary if not interdisciplinary, that research done in collaborative teams is valued, and it creates a challenge I think for young researchers.

As more senior members of the field, we know that if we want to encourage this, we have to figure out the reward structure, and we have to be able to move someone on to tenure who spent the majority of their time as an assistant professor doing work within collaborative teams; we have to.

On the other hand, it does create a serious, serious challenge for being able to identify what that individual has truly contributed to the collaborative work, and for the young person, how much what they’ve contributed will truly shine through depends on the generosity of the people that they are collaborating with.

So the minefield for the young person is to be sure they’re working with people who will make it clear what their collaboration has been, and their input has been, and to be creating a sense of their own identity independent of the collaborative work that they’ve been doing while nonetheless working within collaboratives.

This is a big challenge, and it extends down now into, I worry about this in training graduate students. As I said, I do collaborative, interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary kind of research, and I’m particularly interested in being able to understand how the biology and neurobiology of what’s going on inside the individual connects with the kind of behaviors and psychosocial issues that have been traditionally part of our field.

So as I'm training my students, many of my students get a neuroscience minor as well as, and they may work in a high-risk context as well as doing laboratory research on typically-developing children. And it isn’t very long before I see some of those students who tend to be very curious and high-energy having their fingers in a number of different pies and living in the interstices between fields, and I get worried.

I tell my students, “It is important that you become an expert in something. I mean, a deep expert in something." And it is difficult to become an expert in the gaps. The gaps sometimes become entire fields, like psychobiology. But it is difficult, and easy to make yourself think that you’re moving along, and all you’re doing is getting a little bit of knowledge in a lot of different areas.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2007 SRCD Biennial Meeting in Boston, MA.


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