THE SUBSTRATE

The official blog of the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliate Network

Scientists Without Borders

By Kevin P. McPherson

iStock_000006290897XSmallIt’s no secret that NIH funding is becoming increasingly competitive. In order to land a job at some universities, you are required to have as many as two R01 grants to maintain a professorship. This competitive environment can be troubling to students who wish to get a PhD. The reported overflow of newly-minted PhDs into the job market leaves a surplus of new researchers with very little change in the demand for these researchers. In order to stand out, a new researcher fresh out of graduate school should be able to ask interesting and compelling questions. What if new junior faculty started asking questions that bridged multiple disciplines outside of science? This type of inquiry could be the future of academia, something current undergraduates might want to take note of.

The scholarly community is becoming increasingly aware of each other’s research activities. Undergraduate colleges boast faculty members who get their PhD in one discipline and then apply their knowledge to a completely different field. When I was searching for an undergraduate institution, I knew I wanted to do something that bridged science and the humanities, specifically the biosciences and issues surrounding contemporary Native American communities. To do this, I had to find a school whose humanities departments took a critical look at the sciences. I found that at Emory University, where we have faculty members like Deboleena Roy, a neuroendocrinologist and molecular biologist. However, her interests aren’t limited to neuroendocrinology and molecular biology but span a diverse range, including “feminist science and technology studies, philosophy of science, critical disability studies, postcolonial studies, sexuality studies, neuroscience, molecular and synthetic biology, and reproductive health and justice movements” [1]. Her scholarly work hopes to shift her field from a feminist critique of science to one that creates feminist practices that help push scientific inquiry to new, socially responsible realms [1].

As a professor, Dr. Roy holds ¾ of her professorship in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and the other ¼ in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology [2]. The way I see it, the best part about Dr. Roy’s position is that she doesn’t have to sacrifice her dual interests in order to do impactful research. With such professorships becoming more common, scientists and humanists are taking on new roles outside of their strict disciplines, and as a result, offering classes that appeal to a wide-range of students. In the spring of 2013, I took a class with historian Mary Frederickson called “The Genetic Imaginary.” At first, the course name sounded rather odd: how can genetic information be imaginary? The genome is a very real, even tangible, thing. What followed was an eye-opening experience that taught me about the impact science has on society (and eventually led me to major in Interdisciplinary Studies). The class had me asking questions that seemed too daring to ask before, such as “could the intellectual schools of thought that dominated scientific research in the early 1800s have contributed to the federal government’s recognition of some Native American tribal members today?”

When I pose such questions to my friends, they tell me it sounds like the type of question that would take a lifetime to research since nobody has thought of such a question yet. But therein lies my point: by learning scientific methods and historical and philosophical precedents, I can contribute to a new way of understanding the world around us that takes social justice into consideration. In the process, this does three things: 1) it helps alleviate the public’s creeping suspicions and hesitations about scientific research; 2) it aids in the amelioration of the constant “feud” between the sciences and the humanities, as perceived by many academics; and 3) probably most importantly for my happiness, it allows me to pursue all of my intellectual interests.

The future of interdisciplinary research, especially across the sciences and the humanities, yields a fruitful harvest that can mend the cavernous gap that has separated the two realms. By encouraging interdisciplinary research in our new geneticists and molecular biologists, we could also increase science literacy across fields and occupations, produce new luminaries who are not only logical thinkers but invigorated humanitarians, and answer questions that understand the past while bettering the future.

1. “Deboleena Roy.” Emory Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Emory University. Web. 02 Jan. 2014. <http://wgss.emory.edu/home/people/faculty/deboleena_roy.html&gt;.
2. Wilson, Elizabeth, and Anne Fausto-Sterling. “Many Thanks and Seeking Advice on Interdisciplinary Studies.” Message to the author. 11 Dec. 2013. E-mail.

Interested in alternative career paths? Read Adebanke Fagbemi’s past post on “Finding the right career path: How one woman found her place in science.”

One comment on “Scientists Without Borders

  1. Paula
    January 24, 2014

    Such an interesting point. The fact that things acquire different forms when looked from different angles makes it important for new professionals to acquire knowledge in different areas, which will help them become berrer critical thinkers. And thinking critically itself represent an advantage not only at taking better desicions but at competing for grants as a researcher.

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