Research in the interdisciplinary domain: benefits and challenges in India - IndiaBioscience

Since my early school days, I had a keen interest in computers, while biology was a subject of choice. This attraction to the duo had implanted its roots in my mind. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a bachelors and masters in Bioinformatics from Sardar Patel University, Gujarat. I was selected for my dissertation program at Bioinformatics and Structural Biology lab (Distributed Information Sub-Centre (DISC), a supported centre by the Dept. of Biotechnology, Govt. of India) at the Indian Institute of Advanced Research (IIAR), Gujarat. It was one of the few lab setups at that time involved in computational and experimental research. While engaged in computational research, I started to acquire wet lab skills with guidance from my mentor. Thus, I decided to do my PhD in the same lab and started my doctoral research in bioinformatics and structural biology studies of dual-nature (moonlighting) proteins.

I confess that building a solid foundation of skills — from pipette handling to programming — was exhausting, but it was adventurous too. It broadened my mental boundaries. At that time, I realised that today’s science is all about cross-disciplinarity and one needs to think out of the box. But the transition of the current generation ​“blue sky” research thinking to ​“innovative and product-based” research is not a cakewalk.

Why interdisciplinary research?

Education and research in the pre-industrial revolution era were dominated by religion and classical knowledge to explore questions of morality and truth. However, by the end of the 19th century, education was focused more on meeting the growing demands of the industrialised economy. Moreover, with the advent of technology, education accelerated, developing the foundational structure of disciplinary studies.

The collateral output of the above demand was the evolution of primary education. Disciplines were divided into sub-disciplines with the transformation of knowledge from an individual experience to a product. As is seen, from the early discovery of microbes by Anton van Leeuwenhoek to recent advanced techniques such as Cryo-Electron Microscopy, research has evolved by a quantum leap.

However, for the challenges the world is facing today, concentrating only on one discipline will result in a low success rate. This realisation has forced us to think beyond a single discipline, opening avenues for interdisciplinary research.

My happiest moments in the lab are when I use techniques of both fields and blend them to solve global challenges faced by humankind today.

According to the National Science Foundation, USA, Interdisciplinary research is defined as ​“a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/​or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialised knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.”

Various reforms supported the transition from disciplinary to interdisciplinary. One of the significant reform was from Charles Elliot, President, Harvard University. He advocated for student’s interest-based curricula rather than pre-established hierarchical curricula.

I am a Structural & Computational Biologist. My happiest moments in the lab are when I use techniques of both fields and blend them to solve global challenges faced by humankind today. My vision of a perfect lab is one that is well-equipped with modern instrumentation, a constant flow of funds, and a skilled workforce for driving research. Every young investigator looks for a perfect cycle of having funds for cutting-edge research and high-impact publications leading to newer grants. I found that to achieve this ​‘dreamland’ in multidisciplinary research, one has to perceive and capitalise on the available advantages and work towards overcoming the challenges.

The advantages

From my decade-long experience, I have realised that interdisciplinary research offers several advantages. It broadens the exposure as it involves more than one science discipline. While the understanding expands, there is a higher chance and scope for research leaps. Also, you are often the only expert in your chosen multi-domain group, so one can work independently to address the problems as they arise.

The last decade of scientific achievements is the strong advocate that interdisciplinarity leads to unusual scientific inventions. Moreover, the number of global interdisciplinary conferences are evidence that policymakers are convinced that scientists from different domains have higher chances of coming up with innovations and solutions for societal needs. Unlike monodisciplinary research groups where creativity is often limited, interdisciplinary research groups can utilise the expertise of different fields leading to innovative and high-impact research.

Another significant advantage of interdisciplinary research is the scope for multiple funding avenues through different thematic government grant calls.

Besides, interdisciplinary researchers may have a higher success rate in publishing their work with high-impact journals. Our recently published work in ACS Applied Bio Materials is an excellent example to cite, which blends fundamental and interdisciplinary science.

Another significant advantage of interdisciplinary research is the scope for multiple funding avenues through different thematic government grant calls.

I also find that in academia, I have more options in choosing teaching subjects in a curriculum. I have often been contacted by colleagues and senior researchers for research assistance in computational biology. I believe I would never have got such a chance had I been working in a single discipline, leading to significant personal and institutional development advances.

A few challenges

On the other hand, like in any other field, interdisciplinary work also poses some hurdles. One of the biggest challenges I face is the ​‘consensus language’. In a multidisciplinary field, the goals and tasks are vaguely defined. In my experience, I have seen that people erroneously assume that the others in the team have a basic understanding of the concept, terms and methodology involved in the research problem. Members of an interdisciplinary team often don’t understand each other, which creates a bottleneck to discuss ideas, solve problems, or get proper feedback. It’s challenging to work on a problem when everyone has been trained to approach it from different directions specific to their own problem sets and methodologies.

Another hurdle to overcome is the lack of constructive criticism and evaluation of your work. It’s like a double-edged sword: either your ideas or suggestions are accepted without any questions or rejected without positive feedback.

Not encouraging degree courses in interdisciplinary sciences have reduced the number of students with such skillsets.

I want to highlight one more major challenge I faced — fulfilling the eligibility criteria at different levels in the present system. The current requirements often ask for a primary degree or qualification in specific subjects. They do not have room for those who have studied inter-domain sciences. My primary education is in bioinformatics, while my doctorate is in biochemistry, which has made it difficult for me to meet eligibility criteria for many of the calls, whether it be employment or funding.

Here, I would like to appeal to the concerned authorities and policymakers to amend university recruitment criteria. Not encouraging degree courses in interdisciplinary sciences have reduced the number of students with such skillsets. Moreover, it poses hurdles in recruiting PhD students with the same interdisciplinary interest to drive a project.

I have also often encountered the problem of getting the team members to cooperate and accomplish specific tasks due to a lack of leadership in team dynamics due to individuals having the same strata expertise. The cost is another hurdle and a considerable component in interdisciplinary research. Small tasks in big projects often require goal-centric instrumentation. Hedging all kinds of machines to work in synergy can be challenging. The collateral challenges also include ownership issues for Intellectual Property Rights, distrust and fear, psychological behaviours, or poor ethics.

The road to success

At this juncture, my advice to other young researchers planning to embark on interdisciplinary research would be to network and define their goals as broadly as possible. It can be gratifying and fascinating to do interdisciplinary science if you deal with and overcome the above challenges. To facilitate such research, universities and research institutes should encourage interaction between different disciplines where scientists can meet, share ideas, and discuss problems.

We are slowly but steadily making way for a change in policies to improve the acceptability of interdisciplinary projects to funding opportunities for all, especially young scientists and students, across international borders.

So enjoy every moment of it!

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