The Need for Interdisciplinary STEM Education

Image by Matthias Weinberger, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


In virtually any college, you’ll find the departments that represent the trinity of the basic sciences: biology, chemistry, and physics. The fact that these departments are their own separate entities may reinforce the illusion that the subjects taught are distinct from one another. In reality, it’s difficult to impose rigorous boundaries between these disciplines. Scientific knowledge flows back and forth between seemingly distinct disciplines. Even among scientists and engineers, these delineations are constantly revised, deconstructed or reinforced.


I am currently a second-year medical student. In retrospect, one of the most challenging (but rewarding) aspect about being a pre-med was completing my pre-medical course requirements across a number of different disciplines. In retrospect, these weren’t just classes to weed out physician-hopefuls; the concepts I learned were important to elucidate the pathophysiology of many diseases. Chemistry taught me how to understand the reactions in organic chemistry, which allowed me to understand the processes of protein interactions in biochemistry, which helped me piece together the mechanisms of molecular diseases. By becoming familiar with the basics of a broad array of scientific disciplines, I was free to mix and match these concepts as needed in determining why a patient was so sick.


One of my personal idols, chemist Paul Lauterbur, famously said that all science is interdisciplinary. To prove his point, he underscored in his 2003 Nobel Laureate lecture that he, though a chemist, would be sharing the prize for physiology or medicine with a physicist. In his words, the formal categorization of scientific knowledge exists for administrative and didactic convenience rather than ontological reality.


In fact, this interdisciplinary nature can be observed in Lauterbur’s scientific contributions, which made the development of magnetic resonance imaging possible. He combined concepts from different fields to create a successful, novel technology.


Lauterbur’s career trajectory itself highlights the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to science. Lauterbur was observing a mouse tissue sampling study via NMR in a biology lab when he first devised the idea of imaging with NMR. He then consulted with local mathematicians to see whether his theories were feasible, and they validated his ideas. To test whether his theory could be realized through radiofrequency coils, he consulted a physics textbook, “The Principles of Nuclear Magnetism,” by Anatole Abragam. With this, he completed a series of experiments that confirmed his ideas. Lauterbur succeeded because he did not strictly categorize his work and was comfortable using ideas from other fields.


Following the publication of his work in Nature, Lauterbur invited several scientists from multiple disciplines to share data and collaborate on projects. Lauterbur could slip between chemistry, biology, mathematics and physics and combine many ideas from these fields. He could then encourage collaboration among various scientists and caught the attention of businesses to develop machines with tremendous applications in medicine. And while many approached him after his success to say that they or their mentors had come up with similar ideas in the past, Lauterbur distinguished himself from the rest by actually realizing his idea — thanks to this revolutionary mindset.


Many upper-level science courses, particularly in a field as broad as biology, require extensive knowledge of other disciplines. Fortunately, many university departments offer a number of opportunities that encourage cross-disciplinary thinking and application. In addition, many new exciting applications in the sciences are already creating interdisciplinary collaborations. All science majors should seek instruction outside of their own immediate majors to become more capable of linking seemingly disparate ideas together. By doing so, an interdisciplinary scientific education leads to innovation and success.


A version of this article was previously published in The Dartmouth


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Author: Mike Klymkowsky

I am a Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. Growing up in Pennsylvania, I earned a bachelors degree in biophysics from Penn State then moved to California and earned a Ph.D. from CalTech (working for a time at UCSF and the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic). I was a Muscular Dystrophy Association post-doctoral fellow at University College London and the Rockefeller University before moving to Boulder. My research has involved a number of topics, including neurotransmitter receptor structure, cytoskeletal organization and ciliary function, neural crest formation, and signaling systems in the context of the clawed frog Xenopus laevis as well as biology education research, leading to the development of the Biological Concepts Instrument (BCI), a suite of virtuallaboratory activities, and biofundamentals, a re-designed introductory molecular biology course. I have a close collaboration with Melanie Cooper (@Michigan State) that has resulted in transformed (and demonstrably effective and engaging) course materials in general and organic chemistry known as CLUE: Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything. I was in the first class of Pew Biomedical Scholars and am a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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