Connecting the Sciences

Transdisciplinary Focus Shapes the College of Science and Mathematics

A marine biologist by training, Robert Prezant, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, is inclined to use metaphors from nature to describe the advances in the College’s curriculum.

“Students in our college are encouraged to become academic hybrids,” says Prezant, “a kind of ‘blended animal’ who is able to draw from different disciplines and merge them to come up with new solutions to complex problems.”

This approach, which he describes as “transdisciplinary,” is designed to train students to take knowledge from different existing areas of study and unify the content, enabling them to take creative approaches to areas where science can be applied. The goal is to produce graduates who are able to draw not only from traditional science disciplines such as chemistry, biology or mathematics, but also integrate knowledge from social, legal, policy planning and other related areas.

The graduate who has this ability to engage in multifaceted areas of knowledge is highly valued by industry both locally and internationally. “In fields where scientists will be working, whether it is in private industry or in the public sector, most companies are moving toward an integrative model,” says Prezant. “Instead of working independently in silos, companies are looking to bring together teams with different skills and areas of expertise. The scientists on these teams need to be able to work cross-functionally, to be able to enter into broad conversations where divisions are merging.”

Converging Technologies:
A Look at the Pharmaceutical Industry

One of the key research and development fields that is concentrating in this kind of convergence is the pharmaceutical industry. According to John Siekierka, the Sokol Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and director of the Sokol Institute for Pharmaceutical Life Sciences, “The drug industry is merging into something different as technologies converge.

“As it becomes more challenging to find new drugs to treat complex diseases,” observes Siekierka, “companies are bringing in ideas from various areas such as nanotechnology and robotics to create specialized delivery systems.”

Pharmaceutical companies are especially interested in taking products that are administered through traditional delivery systems (via injection or by oral ingestion) and coming up with novel systems—for example, a biodegradable polymer-based implant that can release a drug into the affected area. This is a particularly attractive innovation for patients because this delivery would not affect the liver or other parts of the body.

“Job candidates who have the kind of multifaceted experience necessary in drug development definitely have the edge,” comments Siekierka.

Boundaries Diminish as Applied Science Evolves

The growing emphasis on knowledge that transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries evolved from natural overlaps—for example, when a scientist needs analysis from a statistician to draw out patterns in collected data, or reaches out to a colleague who knows the legislation and politics of an issue in order to effect policy changes.

Nicholas Smith-Sebasto, associate professor of earth and environmental science, compares the changes in the sciences to the evolution in medicine.

“A hundred years ago, you were simply a ‘scientist’ or a ‘mathematician,’ in the same way most medical practitioners were just ‘doctors,’” explains Smith-Sebasto. “Then areas of expertise became more and more differentiated, to the degree that there is a lack of connection between experts who are working together toward the same goal. Scientists now are moving toward a more holistic approach, where we can use something like the environment as an example of combining approaches, and reunify the disparate disciplines.”

The opportunity to connect different areas of study and draw them together was one of the main attractions of environmental education for Smith-Sebasto. “To be able to reach biologists, chemists, physicists or meteorologists, and know enough about each of those fields to engage in a productive discussion is an enormous benefit,” he comments, adding, “It’s a radical departure from the structure of many science departments today.”

Environmental Management: Disciplines Cross Over in Clean-up Project

One of the fields in which the crossover between disciplines is clearly demonstrated is in the College’s doctoral program in environmental management housed in the Department of Earth and Environmental Studies.

Kevin Olsen, a doctoral candidate in the program, is working with his advisor Michael Kruge, associate dean of the College and professor of earth and environmental studies, on a project examining the level of pollution in the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York.

Along with Eric Stern, research associate, and assistant professor Danlin Yu, Kruge and Olsen are analyzing samples of sediments along this heavily contaminated waterway and then using geoinformatics to map out where the strongest concentrations of pollution are.

“There is a great deal of interest in developing some of the spaces along the canal, but there are serious environmental concerns,” says Kruge. “For example, one unused lot was the site of a coal gasification plant about 100 years ago, and hazardous by-products, including coal tar and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)—one of the most widespread organic pollutants—are still in the soil. When hazardous material is so close to inhabited areas, the clean-up involves political, legal, city planning and financial concerns.”

“From our standpoint, the scientist’s involvement doesn’t end with the collection of information,” says Kruge, “but continues with its potential impacts.”

Olsen, an analytic chemist with a background in archaeology and cultural resource preservation, is intrigued both by the scientific and the social ramifications of the project.

“The Gowanus is phenomenally polluted,” says Olsen. “It is an example of the worst-case scenario, and if you can clean up one of the most badly polluted parts of New York Harbor, you can face any environmental challenge.

“There is a real possibility of revitalizing a historically significant neighborhood with the clean-up,” he adds. “It’s very exciting to think you could make a contribution to a project that makes such a tremendous difference.”