Faculty mentors a key to success
In recognition of the fact that complex real-world problems — climate change, poverty, war, disease and injustice — rarely occur in convenient, discipline-specific categories, universities are increasingly supporting multidisciplinary research.
The Da Vinci Program, launched jointly by the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Science and administered by the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA), supports research and creative projects that bridge traditional academic boundaries through grants of up to $4,500 to eligible undergraduates working independently or in teams.
In the program’s inaugural year, 2012-13, 44 applications were received, and 11 grants were awarded to students with majors in fields such as anthropology, mechanical and electrical engineering, biology, philosophy and music.
Students crossed departmental boundaries to complete projects on tumor imaging, computational analysis of 19th-century literary texts, biohazard monitoring, religious groups and environmental stewardship, portable diagnostic devices and algebraic geometry’s application to engineering problems.
In a project spanning three colleges (and two continents), chemical engineering student Lauren Fritz worked with faculty and fellow students in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre to create a documentary on great white shark conservation efforts in South Africa.
Having faculty mentors whose research and perspectives span multiple fields is key to the program’s success.
Jason McLachlan, professor of biological sciences, pursues research in ecology, statistical modeling and paleoecology with a special focus on the dynamics of plant populations during past and present climate change. McLachlan affirms the importance of interdisciplinary research, even at the undergraduate level.
“All of the challenges faced by society today are cross-disciplinary. If students think they need to master one discipline before tackling the complex multidisciplinary context of societal challenges, they will be like the proverbial expert with a hammer: Every problem looks like a nail,” says McLachlan.
As a concrete example of a multidisciplinary approach to a cross-disciplinary problem, McLachlan points to his research with philosophy major and Da Vinci awardee Chris Glueck.
“Laws and regulations in place to conserve species assume that those species remain in their native habitat. Under changing climate, they will shift to new places where they will no longer be ‘native’ ... Chris worked with a graduate student [in biology] to understand the range shifts of Harwood’s woolystar [an endangered wildflower], and with a law student, to interpret the meaning of established regulations in the novel context of species dispersal. This team couldn’t have done the work without the expertise of three disciplines: biology, law and philosophy,” says McLachlan.
As Glueck learned, combining the perspectives and approaches of various fields is not easy. “My project ... required collaboration between lawyers and biologists. These two vastly different disciplines have distinct sets of jargon and accepted practice. As the ‘go between,’ I was tasked with translation, and while can’t say I’m fluent in either law or science, I did help facilitate the dialogue.”
Not only are the languages spoken by the different academic areas distinct, their ways of perceiving the world differ as well. As McLachlan puts it, “It seems surprising, but we really ‘know’ things in a different way. We couldn’t have made the translation between fields if we hadn’t had Chris as the primary mediator. His training as a philosopher provided him with the skill set to see the commonalities between two fields with common interests but without a common language.”
Despite the challenges involved in finding a “common language,” professor of psychology and director of the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts Thomas Merluzzi believes in the importance of bringing together the currently independent silos of departmental skills and information.
Says Merluzzi: “We are beginning to see disciplinary barriers break down among the faculty and we want to encourage that creative, broad thinking among our undergraduates. The Da Vinci Program is ISLA’s way of strongly affirming the importance of mentored, interdisciplinary research, scholarship and creative works among students from Arts and Letters, Science and Engineering.”
This story was originally published in NDWorks.