Across disciplinary boundaries

The interdisciplinary team of the Open Tree of Life project

What do a fungal evolutionary biologist and a computer scientist have in common?

It is usually easier to name a long list of differences, but that does not mean that those scholars are investigating different issues all the time. They may be very much interested in the same problems, yet apply different perspectives and methods in search for answers.

Those scientists could continuously work on their individual research projects for may years. However, in some cases only an interdisciplinary collaboration leads to a solution. The investigators of the Open Tree of Life project hope this will be the case for them as well. Their goal: creating a tree of life that includes all 1.9 million known species.

“This can only be done with an interdisciplinary team”

The group has eleven members from ten universities and research centers. And they have as many backgrounds, specialties, and interests. For instances, Keith Crandall is the founding director of the Computational Biology Institute at George Washington University, Tiffani Williams is an assistant professor in the computer science department at Texas A&M University, and Karl Gude is the graphics editor–in-residence for the journalism school at Michigan State University.

Several proponents of interdisciplinary collaborations from academia have endlessly emphasized the need for more research breaching disciplinary boundaries—some of them did already decades ago. For example, Julie Thompson Klein (Wayne State University) notes that many societal problems are becoming so complex that solutions may only be found with integration of knowledge from several disciplines.

Assembling, visualizing, and analyzing the Tree of Life

The Open Tree of Life project is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency that supports research projects in non-medical fields of science and engineering. The organization recently awarded about $13 million to three teams of scientists that work on projects to assemble, visualize, and investigate the tree of life. Two of those projects are scaling up methods for analyzing data of the tree and for collecting morphological data to build parts of the tree. The Open Tree of Life project is responsible for building the complete database. The NSF highly endorsed those projects, because after numerous attempts in the past, there is still no place where researchers can go to visualize and analyze an entire tree with all species.

“What is considered interdisciplinary today might be considered disciplinary tomorrow.”

Grant seekers have become increasingly successful convincing the NSF peer reviewers to offer favorable evaluations when they are presented an interdisciplinary research approach for the proposed studies. The organization considers interdisciplinary research necessary for accelerating scientific discoveries, because of the idea that such breakthroughs often transcend the scope of a single discipline.

Last year, the agency organized a five-day brainstorm session for a few dozen invited researchers to stimulate new approaches to building, illustrating, and exploring an interactive tree of life. The meeting led to a variety of proposals from which the three aforementioned projects were selected for funding.

All investigators attended the conference and were able to learn about each others’ research interests and scholarly training. “The Ideas Lab was extremely helpful to build good interdisciplinary groups to conduct ground-breaking research among a bunch of researchers with different backgrounds. We ended up with an unusually large team for a NSF-project and it is working amazingly well,” says Karen Cranston, the lead investigator of the Open Tree of Life project.

“You can place all our investigators on a continuum. On the one end, there are people who have a very computational background and at the other end, there are researchers who are experts in the evolutionary biology of particular groups of organisms,” she explains. “We have software engineers who are building the technology, but we also have biologists who can test the system right away. If our methods are not working to produce acceptable trees, we can adjust the software before we present a fully-developed system to the entire scientific community. That is why having an interdisciplinary team is very helpful.”

Interdisciplinary “within” a discipline

A study by Jian Qin, F. W. Lancaster, and Bryce Allen demonstrated that biology was already one of most prolific scholarly areas for interdisciplinary research in the early 1990s. And the opportunity for biologists to collaborate with scientists from other disciplines has grown ever since because of the rapid advancements in computer technology and other resources. For instance, the number of published papers about phylogeny has increased proportionally in the last three decades as a result of those developments.

But none of this means that it is impossible to conduct interesting studies with multiple scholars from one discipline within a research team. Some of the investigators of the Open Tree of Life project know a lot about the historical development of fungi, while others focus on the evolution of red algae or arthropods. Those specializations ask for familiarity with different scholarly literatures and histories, even though they all are related to an overarching theme: evolutionary biology.

This is precisely what Lisa Luttuca, an education professor at the University of Michigan, explains in her scholarly work about interdisciplinary research, “[it] is no longer safe to assume that faculty within particular disciplines share areas of interest, methods, or even epistemological perspectives.”

According to Cranston, the investigators of the Open Tree of Life project complement each other very well—even though some are from the same field. She maintains that projects, such as Open Tree of Life, are so multifaceted that they need to be addressed by scientists who can integrate information from other disciplines but also from within their own. In other words, scientists need, as Harvard professor Howard Gardner calls it, a “synthesizing mind” to become successful.

Advancement of science

Whether research is conducted with an interdisciplinary team or just with researchers from one discipline, a successful research project hinges on a new discovery, or the integration of information to provide a more comprehensive understanding of numerous pieces of information that were gathered by researchers at different points of time. The Open Tree of Life project focuses on the latter.

Thus, the researchers are not directly focusing on finding new species in their natural environment. Instead, they try to advance science by putting existing trees of life together in one large database so that other scientists can use more data on evolutionary changes of species to explain other phenomena. For instance, a complete tree of life may be helpful for developing new and better medicines.

This will only become possible when a number of complex technological tools are developed to create and visualize the entire tree. “I think this can only be done with an interdisciplinary team,” Cranston concludes.

But, of course, it could be that in the near future this kind of research becomes its own discipline, similar to how neuroscience, cybernetics, and biomedical engineering have involved in their own specific educational fields. That is another reason for why the NSF works hard to stimulate collaboration between academic branches with many of the grant programs. As the organization highlights on its website: “What is considered interdisciplinary today might be considered disciplinary tomorrow.”

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