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Discovery potluck

Laboratories and departments increasingly seek intellectual and scientific breakthroughs through diversification.

Discovery potluck
Photo by Robert A. Lisak
Discovery potluck

Among the perks of working in the lab of Akiko Iwasaki, PhD, are the potluck meals at weekly lab parties. The dishes, which range from Japanese sushi to Korean barbecue to empanadas, reflect the diversity of her lab team.

“Not only do they come from different racial and cultural backgrounds, but science backgrounds as well,” said Iwasaki, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and of dermatology, and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “I have medical doctors, biologists, and people who are working in the computational side. When they get together, the kinds of things they can achieve together is much more than if I only have people of the same background.”

A case in point is the transgenic mouse Takehiro Takahashi, MD, PhD, made. “I was expecting to have some sort of phenotype related to autoimmune disease,” said Takahashi, who came to the lab two years ago with clinical experience and a background in neurology. “What I actually noticed was the gait—they lose balance very easily. We never expected the mice to have a neurological problem.”

And Takahashi’s training in neurology is why Iwasaki celebrates the diversity of people from different fields working together. “There’s a lot of research done over the decades that shows that diverse teams produce more innovative discoveries in science,” she said. “In order to have synergy between team members you need to have diversity.”

That synergy has remained elusive in a university setting. The Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine was founded in 1903 to promote biomedical research across disciplines. More than a century later, in 2006, the society’s journal published this article, “The Future of Interdisciplinary Research and Training: How to Conquer the Silo Guardians.”

Such barriers to cross-disciplinary diversity, said Gary Brudvig, PhD, the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry and professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, are embedded within the structure of academia.

“The sciences are typically departmentally organized and very siloed,” he said. “Chemistry is in one building and chemists see each other all the time, but they never interact with other people unless there is some reason to seek each other out. It’s not a very organic process of creating interdisciplinary research, which is becoming more and more important.”

About 15 years ago, Brudvig and colleagues created an institute that brought together scientists from different fields who shared an interest in climate and energy. The institute lasted about six years and was supplanted when Yale bought the West Campus in 2007 and created the Energy Sciences Institute (ESI), which Brudvig directs. “It created a very different environment,” he said. “It’s focused on a topic, not a discipline.”

Faculty at the institute come from applied physics, mechanical engineering, chemistry, and chemical and environmental engineering. Researchers from such fields as electrical engineering, geology and geophysics, and molecular biophysics and biochemistry are present on the institute’s advisory board.

The federal government, Brudvig noted, has encouraged interdisciplinary research over the last decade. “Grants may be on a particular topic, but the scope requires people with expertise in different areas,” he said.

At the ESI, the success of cross-disciplinary research is reflected in its publications, written by authors from different departments. And Brudvig points to the serendipity that comes from proximity. Over lunch, he said, one of his postdocs chatted with a scientist from a lab that needed help making molecules to improve battery life. Brudvig’s postdoc knew how to make those molecules.

“That collaboration got started without either principal investigator being aware of it, and it led to other projects,” he said.

Bringing people together was the foremost goal of All Points West, a half-day symposium organized by graduate students this spring at Yale West Campus, where institutes are arranged according to theme rather than discipline.

“We wanted to get people across different disciplines talking to each other,” said organizer Courtney Smith, a fifth-year student in the Cancer Biology Institute. “It’s easy to chat with people within your own institute, but I hadn’t seen many events on campus aimed at bringing the different institutes together.”

“On occasions when I did hear from other institutes, it was normally at the faculty level,” said Becky LaCroix, a seventh-year student at the Systems Biology Institute, and co-organizer of the symposium. “This really felt like a space for everyone to learn what’s going on.”

Students from each of the seven institutes plus the Yale School of Nursing made five-minute research presentations at a level “scholars from all backgrounds could understand,” Smith said. They also submitted proposals for mini-grants to fund a year of research. One of the three awarded was for a collaboration between postdocs Eileen Condon from the School of Nursing and Sylvie Estrela from the Microbial Sciences Institute to look at how maternal stress might be transmitted to a child via the gut microbiome.

LaCroix and Smith plan to repeat the symposium next year. “We wanted to provide trainees with some way to connect,” Smith said. “That is the goal of this campus, to be collaborative.”