Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Interdisciplinary Research for the curious and creative

Men in Black (MIB), Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE), 2006
“Interdisciplinary research (IDR) is 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 specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or field of research practice.” Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, NAS report, 2005.

            Many of society and science’s biggest problems require input from different fields to solve them. Understanding how climate has changed over Earth’s history and how humans have influenced this is a perfect example. We need mathematical modelers, earth scientists, anthropologists, oceanographers, historians, and meteorologists to work together if we want to successfully plan for our near future in terms of global climate. Getting teams of these people to work together has been accomplished through a large international group, the IPCC—Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change—that issues a yearly report and maintains an outstanding website that anyone can follow.
            Other questions that require an interdisciplinary approach are how did life originate on Earth? And are we alone in the Universe? In 1999, NASA created the Astrobiology Institute to bring together scientists and engineers to work on answering these questions, which are as old as life itself and have profound societal and religious implications. If there is life on a far distant planet around a far distant star, are the Gods that Earthlings pray to the same Gods in that distant planetary system? Are earth’s Gods the same Universe-wide? Are we special here on Earth? Although we’ve not been able to answer how life originated and are we alone in the Universe in 20 year timeframe of the Astrobiology Institute, with the advent of NASA’s far-reaching telescopes deploying in the next 20 years, we might actually know whether we are the only living organisms in the Universe—or not.

            Interdisciplinary research (IDR) has been the hallmark of my career. As a young undergraduate, I was trained in biology, earth science, and marine science—three fields that I was able to access at Penn State because of liberal requirements for a biology major. My training as a graduate student continued this approach. I had three major professors—a marine chemist, an algal physiologist, and a microbial biochemist—all of whom had a say in my work and its outcome. With a PhD in botany, I landed a postdoc at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington where I pioneered a career in biogeochemistry, in particular stable isotope biogeochemistry.  My formal degrees were in life science (biology and botany), my lab was a chemistry lab, and my department supported earth science.
            My brain was wired at an early age to be curious about any number of scientific problems and ideas. Stable isotope geochemistry was a relatively new and rare topic when I first started working in this field in 1975, but it advanced rapidly in the next decade making inroads in nearly every major earth science department in the United States, Europe, Australia, Russia, and Japan. Not only were the mass spectrometers that we used more sensitive and robust, but the tools and methods for analyzing everything from gases to human tissues underwent a Renaissance as well. At the Carnegie, I worked alongside of Tom Hoering, George Cody, Andrew Steele, and Doug Rumble. Our joint laboratories boasted five to six mass specs at any one time that allowed us to probe meteorites and billion year old rocks at the same time as we measured amino acids in butterflies and human bones. 
Seth Newsome, Geophysical Lab mass spec room; Pig Hat for fun

            In my memoir and blog, I’ve highlighted many of the IDR projects I was engaged in—biogeochemistry in its broadest sense, astrobiology (e.g. AMASE), biocomplexity (mangrove studies in Belize), and human dimensions of global change (i.e. paleoclimate studies of Australia). I was able to fully engage in these IDR projects because Carnegie, then, did not create silos for its senior scientists. I spent fruitful sabbaticals at Carnegie’s Department of Plant Biology, the Conservation and Analytical Lab at Museum Support Center of the Smithsonian Institution, Dartmouth College, and the University of Maryland. I learned new techniques and took the time to start new projects and work face to face with new people. 

“At the heart of interdisciplinarity is communication—the conversations, connections, and combinations that bring new insights to virtually every kind of scientist and engineer.” Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, NAS report, 2005.

            Being in Washington DC for most of my career was important for hosting short- and long-term visitors from around the world. Further, because we did not grant academic degrees, I worked with undergraduate and graduate students from different universities and colleges without any restriction, but that their research was of interest to me. The continuous influx of postdocs in my lab, who entered typically as specialists and exited as IDR experts, provided the juice for funding and new ideas. A major boost to IDR was the Broad Branch Road’s (Geophysical Lab and DTM) Lunch Club where 20-25 of us dined daily and spent 30-45 minutes sharing ideas and challenges (https://isotopequeen.blogspot.com/2019/08/carnegies-lunch-club.html). 
Biogeochemists and other IDR folks, 100 year birthday Geophysical Lab

“The world pays lip service to interdisciplinary activities, but is slow to do anything about it.” (Tom Hoering, 1987)

            Hoering hit the nail on the head when he mentioned this in his acceptance speech for the Treibs Medal. Although people talk up IDR, there are decided challenges to an individual who is undertaking this type of research. I worked through a number of these during my career. The foremost challenge is respect and recognition by colleagues that you are indeed able to contribute significantly to different fields. I felt this keenly during outside reviews at the Geophysical Lab, in which, occasionally, an anonymous reviewer thought I should focus on one problem and make a bigger name for myself. When I read those comments to my younger colleagues, they scoffed “Jealous!”  That may have been the case. I was granted complete freedom at the Geophysical Lab to work on any project I was interested in. Although we had a full time 12-month salary, Carnegie only provided us with minimal resources for operating the laboratory, so we were required to bring in outside funds. Establishing your bona fides in other fields so you could get research dollars took extra effort and required a strategy to get my name out there.
            I received research funding from the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, three divisions of the National Science Foundation—Life Science, Geoscience, and Social Science, different programs at NASA, the Smithsonian Institution, the W. M. Keck Foundation, Delaware’s Sea Grant program, and the Delta Science council in California. To be successful in garnering funding from different agencies and foundations, you have to learn a new grant writing protocol, develop connections with program officers, and volunteer to review proposals in those programs.  I served on panels and review teams for many of these groups along the way, ensuring that when one of my proposals arrived, it would be assigned to knowledgeable reviewers for a fair review.
MIB, AMASE, 2007

            Most people publish their work in 4-5 specialized journals, but with IDR as my main focus, I needed a different publishing strategy. Accordingly, I’ve published my work in 93 different journals! The typical high-profile journals, Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, are read by the majority of scientists from all fields, but only a small fraction of my work was published there. Specialty journals, like Tree Physiology or The Auk, specializing in avian research, took my publications because I brought the power of stable isotope tools to problems in their field. With time, new interdisciplinary journals, Biogeochemistry, Astrobiology, and Geobiology for example, became prominent places for more complex work to be published.
            It took time, but the investment in learning new fields and new skills was worth it. Learning how to be successful at IDR at the Carnegie Institution of Washington enabled me to create interdisciplinary teams, departments, and the EDGE Institute at UC Riverside.
            Below is a list of the 93 journals, which are grouped by topic spanning microbiology, plant science, zoology, ecology, earth science, environmental science, and ocean science to interdisciplinary journals.
Applied Microbiology
Environmental Microbiology Reports
Frontiers of Microbiology
Geomicrobiology Journal
The International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal

International Journal of Plant Science
Journal of Phycology
Marine Biology
Plant Physiology
Progress in Photosynthesis Research
Tree Physiology

Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science
Canadian Journal of Zoology.
Coral Reefs
Ecological Applications
Functional. Ecology
Integrative and comparative biology
Journal Animal. Ecology
Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
Journal Fish Biology
Journal of Insect Physiology
Journal of Mammalogy
Marine Ecology Progress Series
Marine Ecology
Marine Mammal Science
Marine Pollution Bulletin
Physiological Biochemistry and Zoology
Polar Biology
Proceedings of the Royal Society London B:
The Auk
The Journal Exp. Biology

American Mineralogist
Chemical Geology
Eos, Transaction of the American Geophysical Union
Earth and Planetary Science Letters
Frontiers in Earth Science
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Geological Society of India
Journal Geoscience. Education
Journal Quaternary Science
Journal Soil and Water Conservation
Nature Geoscience
Norwegian Journal of Geological Science
Organic Geochemistry
Precambrian Research
Quaternary Research
Quaternary Science Reviews
Soil Biology and Biochemistry
The Holocene

Environment, Science & Technology
Frontiers in Environmental Science

Estuarine, Coastal Shelf Science
Geophysical Research Letters
Journal of Paleolimnology
Limnology and Oceanography
Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, and Palaeoecology
Marine Chemistry

American Antiquity
Journal Archaeological Science 
The SAA Archaeological Record

Ancient Biomolecules
Climate of the Past
Geochemical Perspective Letters
Geochemical Perspectives
Geochemical Transactions
Nature Communications
PLOS (Public Library of Science) One
Proceeding of the National Academy of Science
Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry

IEEE Aerospace conference
Journal of Gravitational Physiology
Meteoritics and Planetary Science
Engineers and Scientists, AMASE 2007

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