Robert Clark on Benefits, Challenges of Interdisciplinary Research Teaming

Senior Associate Dean Robert Clark

Duke mechanical engineer Robert Clark presented a keynote talk on the challenges and benefits of establishing a vibrant interdisciplinary research program at the International Symposium for Biologically-inspired Design and Engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Clark, senior associate dean at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, is the director of Duke’s Center for Biologically Inspired Materials and Material Systems (CBIMMS) ( CBIMMS, established in 2001, encompasses a broadly multidisciplinary research effort focused on biointerface science, biomaterials and tissue engineering, bio-nanomanufacturing, drug and gene delivery and nano-biomechanics.

“It is clear that research at the boundaries of traditional science and engineering disciplines is yielding tremendous gains,” Clark said. “In launching the CBIMMS program at Duke, we have learned a lot about the challenges of interdisciplinary research teaming that can help others in their efforts.”

The simple act of brainstorming in a group of researchers having different backgrounds is “tremendously exciting and stimulating,” said Clark. “Such groups diminish the fear associated with suggesting ideas that are outside the accepted ‘dogma’ of a particular researcher’s discipline. There is less risk of being criticized by colleagues that understand when you approach the problem with a different background and perspective. As a result, this kind of brainstorming among colleagues from different disciplines can stimulate creativity, sometimes leading to radically unique ideas or approaches.”

According to Clark, the keys to building a successful interdisciplinary educational program include administrative flexibility and support, seed funding, and constant exposure to other researchers to expand the vocabulary, which can vary greatly from discipline to discipline.

He said interdisciplinary research and educational programs inherently cross the administrative boundaries of traditional departments and schools in academia and this can create tension in allocating resources such as administrative support, faculty time for course development, and specialized teaching environments/laboratories.

“Because departments must teach core courses to meet accreditation requirements, faculty trying to enable an interdisciplinary program may be forced to take on a teaching overload in order to offer the kinds of cross-disciplinary courses that are needed,” said Clark. “But there is tremendous student interest in such intellectual opportunities, and universities can take advantage of the student and faculty interest by finding ways to support faculty who are broadening course offerings.”

Clark said Duke has partially addressed this tension by pursuing and winning an NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, with structured mechanisms for expanding course offerings.

Interdisciplinary programs benefit from administrative flexibility in recruiting students, he said. At Duke, CBIMMS established an admitting graduate certificate program. “Our faculty can recruit students directly to the CBIMMS program or to their particular department. CBIMMS students can get an M.S. or Ph.D. from any of the participating departments and schools as long as a participating faculty member from that department serves as an adviser to the student. The program spans three schools at Duke, arts & sciences, engineering, and medicine, including departments in engineering, biology, chemistry, physics and others,” said Clark. “Allowing students to enter the program from multiple paths allows the center to leverage the recruiting efforts of the departments and also pursue targeted recruitment. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Interdisciplinary centers may also need more specialized grant writing support to garner the core center grants needed to establish and sustain the research community until it becomes self-supporting. Such proposals take more time to prepare and require the faculty and administration to demonstrate that it has the necessary commitment and infrastructure to be successful at the proposed research.

“We began writing proposals for our CBIMMS program in 2000 and it took several tries before we were successful in 2002. In that year, NSF funded our IGERT program and a Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT) proposal. Our NIRT was one of the first NSF-funded efforts to focus on bionanomanufacturing,” said Clark, cautioning research teams not to get discouraged.

It is also critical to build in mechanisms to continually expose the interdisciplinary research teams and students to new ideas and people.

“We have a mandatory seminar course for the CBIMMS program in which graduate students study a speaker’s body of work and brief the center community the week before attending the seminar,” said Clark. “Such advance preparation ensures that students are fully prepared to interact with the experts we bring to campus, and helps with networking and idea exchange.”

Another enabling mechanism for interdisciplinary education is exposure to state-of-the-art tools. Clark said Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility (SMIF) coordinates a required advanced training course in which students learn basic methods of fabrication and characterization of materials. “This ensures students have exposure to the capabilities of the various instruments that we are using, and can lead to new ideas about how to incorporate these tools into their research,” he said.

Clark noted that for faculty, interdisciplinary research also challenges academic tradition for peer reviewed publication. “Who deserves to be the lead author when the research truly was a team effort? Or, for example, if the idea originates with one faculty member, but the execution requires equal contribution by more than one faculty member/research group, whose name goes where?” Clark asked. “For young faculty working towards tenure, lead authorship is tremendously important. Even for established researchers, this can be a tricky thing to negotiate.”

The efforts to cultivate multidisciplinary research communities are worth the effort, said Clark. In a recent collaboration between Piotr Marszalek, associate professor of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, and Vann Bennett, James B. Duke Professor of Cell Biology, Biochemistry, and Neuroscience and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, the mechanical properties of ankyrin were investigated by single molecule force spectroscopy. Ankyrin is believed to act as a spring that gates mechanoreceptors, and surprisingly, when the elasticity of the molecule was explored, it was discovered that this molecule displays linear elasticity and is capable of generating a restoring force. This is the first protein observed to behave as a Hookean spring, and the results were published in the journal Nature. This reverse engineering process was the result of a collaboration initiated two years ago between biologists and engineers and represents what CBIMMS seeks to stimulate.

Clark presentation is available online.