As someone doing research in a biochemistry lab, the majority of my work being bench work, before this fellowship I had virtually never interacted with researchers outside the hard sciences. I had very rarely thought about how my research could benefit from other approaches or perspectives. I was just doing Western Blots and tissue culture and trying to learn everything I could about protein degradation. But after working with my Ideathon group to write a proposal together, I can finally see first hand how working outside your own discipline can be so vital (and interesting!).
Our group had perspectives from biochem, chemical engineering, literature, classics, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and economics. And while our project certainly benefitted from the diverse perspectives and experiences of everyone’s research and departments, all of our zoom chats were also just… fun. It was fun to talk to other really smart people and vent about politics, discuss feelings of imposter syndrome, hype each other up, and share about the difficulties we’d encountered with our projects and communicating with research mentors. It didn’t matter that we all came from different disciplines, we still had a lot in common given our experiences at Pitt, as researchers, as Brackenridge fellows.
When it came to actually talking about our research proposal and communicating our ideas, I didn’t find it as difficult as I had expected to bridge the gap between the humanities and the hard sciences. To be fair, our project focused a bit more on the humanities side of things as we formed a proposal to better support all students, especially those with learning disabilities, by increasing resources, education, and outreach (potentially via an entirely new Center for Alternative Learning). But explaining gene sequences (and how for me, even without a learning disability, reading them is really difficult and thus could be a barrier to the sciences for those with learning disabilities) didn’t go over everyone’s heads. You just have to be willing to break things down and answer questions. I think a lot of people in the sciences are hesitant to incorporate the humanities for two reasons: it’s not seen as “hard” research (which is ridiculous), and there’s an idea that science is impossible to understand if you aren’t a scientist. But it isn’t impossible, you just have to be willing to explain things in a way that others can understand.
The Ideathon really cemented for me that interdisciplinary research doesn’t have to be hard, you just have to not be lazy or stagnant. Sure you won’t be able to list off genes and proteins and complex acronyms, but who cares? Getting new perspectives for your project is incredibly beneficial and far outweighs the “difficulty” of explaining things in a different way. Plus talking to other people about their research perspectives is fun. And research should be fun, it shouldn’t be boring. We laughed so much in our zoom calls and I’m grateful for the experience to write a proposal together for a topic that we all ended up caring a lot about.
This experience really makes me excited to find a way to incorporate the humanities and social sciences into scientific and health research. Whether that’s something that happens this year or in my future, the human story side of science is important. Studying cells and proteins and diseases is vital, but there are people behind those cells and proteins and diseases. I think scientists and healthcare providers/researchers should seek out opportunities to have discussions with social workers, psychologists, therapists, teachers, writers, and more. Because the human story side of research is just as important as the cell side of research, and I think there’s a lot to be gained from incorporating that perspective.
The Ideathon ended up being way more fun and way less work than I had previously expected, and I’m really glad I got to write a research proposal with such a diverse, cool group of people (and not just because the humanities majors among us could fix every terrible sentence I wrote in our GoogleDoc… I tired my best y’all). And hey, maybe 5 or 10 years from now the CAL will exist and everyone will be able to learn and study in the way that works best for them.