Border Science

A lot of people believe that cross-disciplinary research is necessary for solving many of today’s great global problems. But funding for cross-disciplinary research can be hard to come by, and—while most senior scientists like the idea of cross-disciplinary research—tenure committees seem to favor scientists to specialize over those who diversify.

A 12-year-old program managed by the nonprofit Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) is trying to improve the odds of career success for cross-disciplinary scientists. The Career Awards at the Scientific Interface, or CASI awards, as they’re often called, fund postdoctoral scientists with backgrounds in physical science, mathematics, computational science, and engineering who would like to study biological problems in academic labs.

“You need physicists, you need engineers, you need theorists, and the computational scientists and mathematicians.” —Rusty Kelley

Recipients of CASI awards receive $500,000 over 5 years, including 2 years of postdoctoral research and the first 3 years of a faculty appointment. Applicants must have more than 1 year but less than 4 years of postdoctoral experience, be U.S. or Canadian citizens, and be pre-tenure-track at the time of application. If you’re interested, hurry: The application deadline for this year is 3 September. Details about eligibility are on the BWF Web site.

Border science

BWF created the CASI program in 2001 because the foundation wanted to support an area of research—the merger of physical and life sciences—that it felt was being overlooked, says Rusty Kelley, a program officer at BWF who oversees the CASI awards. “The Fund is always looking for under-appreciated, underfunded areas of science, in particular areas that the federal government hasn’t already devoted significant funds toward,” says Kelley, who is based at BWF’s office in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. “This isn’t the life sciences, this is the physical sciences, the mathematical sciences. We’re trying to bring those people into the picture, into the funding strategy, so they can move science forward to ask more complex questions.”

BWF believes the biggest advances in pharmaceutical research and biomedicine are likely to come from physical scientists and engineers bringing their expertise to bear on longstanding questions in biology, Kelley adds. “Let’s face it, small molecule, traditional pharma, isn’t working,” he says. “You really need to involve thinking that isn’t purely biological. You need physicists, you need engineers, you need theorists, and the computational scientists and mathematicians.”

Getting back to biology

Case in point: Daniel Goldman. When he was growing up, Goldman—now a biophysicist and associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta—was obsessed, he says, with lizards and other crawly critters. But in college, he decided to pursue “a more serious science,” and earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas in Austin.

Still, those crawly critters gnawed at him—rather, the idea of addressing critter-related biological questions did. He sought a postdoctoral position that would allow him to marry his interests. “I wanted to … move back toward biology, so I did a postdoc at a biomechanics group out at [the University of California,] Berkeley, in a biology department,” Goldman says. There, he learned about, applied for, and won a CASI award in 2006.

Today, Goldman studies how animals such as lizards and ants displace granular materials as they move. His findings are useful to scientists working on human prosthetic devices.

In no uncertain terms, Goldman attributes his success to his CASI award. “That award basically made my career,” he says. “It allowed me to push in the direction I’ve been pushing for the last 7 years.”

Without BWF funding, Goldman says, he might not have been able to do the cross-disciplinary research needed to impress a tenure committee—he is tenured now—and get on the path toward full professorship. “As you move into your faculty job, [the CASI award] gives you some money to do things that may be hard if you didn’t have that money, particularly if you’re kind of in between scientific areas, like I was, and am,” he says. Goldman used the money to fund his early-career research, designing and building climbing robots inspired by animal locomotion.

Goldman says he has encouraged the postdocs in his own lab to apply for a CASI award, and expects them to do so within the next couple of years.

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