Can I Get a PhD in Collaboration?

I am seeking a Ph.D. in engineering as part of an international partnership between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States and the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. I am finishing my 2nd year of research, and when people ask me about my project I hesitate for a few seconds as I decide how best to frame my response. 

Briefly, I study the interaction between cells and the extracellular matrix in bone. The cell influences its microenvironment and, at the same time, the microenvironment influences cellular behavior—I am exploring this interrelationship. Specifically, I am investigating how the cAMP/PKA signaling pathway affects collagen structure and deposition, using a hydrogel-based,  three-dimensional culture system to create a model that is more physiologically relevant than one produced by standard two-dimensional tissue culture methods. I am also characterizing mechanical properties of hydrogels and observing how changing these properties affects the cell’s biological response.

Is there a place in this world for people like me, who specialize in pulling pieces together and providing a high-level, low-resolution image of what the puzzle probably ought to look like, to guide the more detailed work of disciplinary scientists?

The project spans continents and disciplines. At Cambridge, I work in the laboratory of Michelle Oyen in the engineering department. Her focus is on mechanical characterization of biomaterials. In the United States—at NIH—I’m a member of Constantine Stratakis’ lab in the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where we study the genetic basis of endocrine diseases. My Ph.D. is a lesson in collaboration.

Recently, I visited the lab of a scientist well known for his collaborative research. I was struck by the variety and scope of the lab’s projects. While chatting with some of the fellows, I asked one if he enjoyed working there. “No,” he replied. I was taken aback because the research seemed fascinating. He had a reason: “[The principal investigator (PI)] is spread too thin.”

His response echoed one of my favorite quotes from , where Bilbo Baggins describes himself as feeling “[…] thin, […] like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” That passage has resonated with me over the years because it describes how I sometimes feel about my work. 

Being spread thin is not necessarily a bad thing. I get to dabble in a number of fascinating areas: biomaterials, tissue engineering, cell biology, and genetics, applying engineering principles to biological problems. However, the traditional expectation is that by the time Ph.D. students earn their degree, they will be leading experts in one area of knowledge. By that standard, I am spread too thin.

In academia, everyone holds a piece of a many-pieced puzzle, and most of the focus is on discovering new pieces. Is there a place in this world for people like me, who specialize in pulling pieces together and providing a high-level, low-resolution image of what the puzzle probably ought to look like, to guide the more detailed work of disciplinary scientists?

I hope so—and not only because I want to make a career out of that kind of work. I hope science has a place for people like me, because I believe this role is essential.

Right now, a “globalization” of the sciences is occurring—and not just in the sense of international boundaries. There’s pure biology, chemistry, and physics, as there has always been, but today many people understand more than ever that we must cross boundaries and blend fields.

In interdisciplinary collaborations, communication is key, yet language isn’t the only barrier. Yes, each field has its own terminology and jargon—but it also has its own paradigms, standards, and heuristics. These differences can cause potentially fruitful partnerships to stagnate or self-destruct. When I was interviewing with potential collaborators for my Ph.D. project, I noticed right away that engineers speak a very different language from biologists. Clinicians speak yet another language. All have different assumptions about very basic topics, such as what good data looks like, or even how to form a hypothesis.

Even though the issues transcend language, it is useful to think of the collaborating, multidisciplinary scientist as a translator. I’m learning to speak materials mechanics and molecular biology. I may miss some of the nuances that a native speaker would catch, but by knowing enough of both languages, I can facilitate communication and collaboration between the two fields.

Both kinds of properties of a cell-culture system—mechanical and biological—influence the behavior of cells. A cell biologist would know which signaling pathways to activate. A materials scientist could produce culture systems with different mechanical properties. An interdisciplinary scientist is needed to demonstrate how the mechanical properties of the culture system alter signaling in the cells. Collaboration among all three—the cell biologist, the materials scientist, and me—could yield insights that would not be possible if any of us were missing.

Still, later we will need translation of a different sort, where our collective insights are applied to the treatment of real patients. That stage is likely to bring more of the same kind of challenges: different languages, different paradigms, and different values.

A classmate supervised by a systems biologist and a clinician once told me how, when her biologist PI would become excited over an interesting result, the clinician would respond, “That’s great, but how can we use this?” Engineers and clinicians share a similar problem-oriented outlook.

While I was searching for a project, my goal was to cure cancer—just like so many other young biomedical scientists. But when I discussed my aspirations with established PIs—who had spent their careers learning everything they could about a particular gene or protein—I probably seemed lazy or uninterested, because I couldn’t specify a particular signaling pathway or molecule-ligand interaction that I wanted to study. My approach was top-down, problem focused—not bottom-up, where interesting findings may be put to practical use later (if at all), probably by someone else. Fortunately, some scientists recognize the value of the big picture, of looking at a problem from multiple angles, and so far I have ended up with some excellent and unique opportunities. Hopefully this will continue.

What’s the moral of the story? Communication and collaboration between people of different disciplines is difficult, but it’s necessary. Training people to work in interdisciplinary roles—to be comfortable spread thin—may ease the way for collaborative research and pave a smoother road into the future of scientific research.

Go West, Young Scientist—or North, or South, or East

A WakeUp Call for Postdocs