While on a recent surf across the web, I came across an old paper talking about techniques for measuring the area under curve for a glucose tolerance test. The paper suggested a new mathematical technique to determine the area under the curve by breaking down the odd shape of the area under the curve into regular shapes like triangle and rectangle. The total area is then determined by just adding up the areas of these regular shapes. If you look at it, it is actually the already known trapezoidal rule for approximating a definitive integral. In essence, the wheel was reinvented. Incidents like this happen all the time but what is troubling is that this paper was approved by a peer-review process and has been cited 145 times. The way this paper managed to get through the peer-review process arguably shows the absence of a mathematician among the reviewers. The other concern is that the original author may not have discussed his paper with a mathematician. Both of these concerns demonstrate a gap in interdisciplinary communication.
Specialization has never happened before as it is happening now. The era of generalists ended a century ago (Edison was probably the last of them but you need to acknowledge Linus Pauling as well!) We are actually moving towards an era of superspecialization. One of my friends is trying to be a robotic-urologist with specialization in prostatectomy, which means he is a urologist trained to remove only the prostate and only using a robotic arm! There are so many reasons to promote interdisciplinary communication if not interdisciplinary training. For one, you do not have to reinvent the wheel and waste money and time. It could let you think out of the box. It could make you a pioneer in your field by helping you introduce a tested idea from another field. You could get tissue samples if you have friends in med school! Grad students could get much-needed authorship helping someone in a different field. While there is so much to gain, there is not enough being done to harvest them. NIH has an interdisciplinary common fund. What do grad students have? Coffee mug and a couple of friends! That is all you need.
So what can you do to improve the scenario, other than waiting for your department to begin a new interdisciplinary program? Well, for starters, if you are a grad student do not live in a house where everyone is a microbiologist. Even though it might be fun to have debate on the genomic recombination in Deinococcus, while having dinner, that is what you do in the lab all the day. I would rather prefer to live with a physicist or an astronomer than with a geneticist. (I am a poor grad student. I can’t afford to live alone!)
Try to hang out with people from other professions – musicians, mathematicians, theater artistes, painters. In addition to taking you out of your shell, it could also widen your horizons. You never know where the next big inspiration is going to come from. Remember that speech Steve Jobs made at the Stanford commencement? The connections just happen.
Walk in to that robotics conference you always wanted to attend. Learn something new and talk with someone about that new technology you read on Wired. You will also end up with a new business card in your wallet and, maybe, a future collaborator. My favorite pastime is to call up a non-bio grad student for lunch or coffee! You will realize that it also helps break the tedium in the lab.