I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference that is completely outside of my field of study. I study bioinorganic chemistry and do most of my work on small metalloproteins, so I spend a lot of time thinking about fundamentals like inorganic spectroscopy, biophysics, and biochemistry.  I managed to have some interdisciplinary experiences early on and these likely influenced my choice of a Chemical Biology program over the more traditional programs that I was also admitted to.

This past week I saw some talks at the Goldschmidt, which is one of the largest geochemistry conferences. While there, I spent most of my time at the bio-geochemistry talks, since that’s what’s most interesting to me, and stuff like vulcanism (it’s a thing, I swear) and mantle chemistry is totally out of my reach. I have long had an interest in applying some of my skills to environmental problems and questions, but outside of reading some papers, haven’t had the opportunity to get a good idea of what’s been going on in the field. This experience got me thinking a lot about specialization in science and how, without having finished my Ph.D., I feel that am already very specialized.

While it’s true that what our group does is pretty interdisciplinary and what my project has entailed has been particularly broad, I worry about being able to broaden my horizons even more. Most people will tell you that the most important thing you learn in a Ph.D. is learning what you don’t know and how to get that information, but it’s still hard to imagine beginning a in a completely different field whether that be policy, publishing, or just a different scientific field, without knowing what’s there and what isn’t. Understanding the state of the field and the perspectives from which a lot of people in the field work are important to be able to work productively and push limits.

Modern society selects for specialization. We all know this–from the advent of agriculture and tradesmen, people have been specializing. Science is no different. Lots of progress has been made by people specializing and developing more and more powerful techniques, just think of protein NMR. So obviously expertise is rewarded and sought after, but the important questions and research that will be done will (in part) require synthetic skills. Meaning being able to bring together multiple fields of study, a breadth of background and conversation, and unique skill sets (in a person or a team).

How well are most scientists trained to work in such a situation? My gut answer would be that the oldest scientists are great at this. Peruse the notebooks of Linus Pauling if you don’t believe me (it’s online here). He was a polymath with a voracious appetite for knowledge. Richard Feynman is another person who comes to mind. But there’s definitely a cadre of people in younger generations that have thrived off of specialization. Perhaps in response to this, interdisciplinary fields, journals, and programs are springing up. The NIH and NSF are looking into funding groups of scientists for a single project, rather than single labs. From where I am within the system it’s hard to tell whether this will favor broader interests or whether we’ve just reached another level of specialization.

For myself, I am interested in having a broad perspective, and so choosing how I decide to approach my career post-graduate school seems very significant. Finding an appropriate post-doc that allows me to learn a different field/technique and poises me for progress in a new area is difficult and daunting. I’m looking to find a way to break outside my (self-) imposed boundaries and do something that I care about; that pushes me creatively, and that matters, and I have a sneaking suspicion that for me, the answer lies in between disciplines.