What Have I Done? – or the Story of How I Transitioned into Multi-Disciplinary Research | FindAPhD.com
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What Have I Done? – or the Story of How I Transitioned into Multi-Disciplinary Research

Always on the lookout for a new adventure? Fancy yourself an individual with a knack for the extreme sports? Interested in academia?

Well then.

If you just can’t wait to experience the rush of being tossed into an intellectual 'no man's land' while climbing your way to the ivory towers of an academic career, try jumping from a standard, single-subject undergraduate degree, straight into multidisciplinary research. Curious as to how that might go down? Take a seat. I’m here to tell you the story of how I cannon-balled from the steady-sailing boat that was my Mathematics degree, right into the deep waters of a cross-subject PhD in Durham University’s Department of Bioscience.

Two years and counting. And here’s how it all started. . .

The pre-emptive horror

What had I done?!

It seemed like only yesterday that I was cheerfully typing away my application for this position, congratulating myself for a genius idea. Combining Mathematics with Biology? Oh, the sky was the limit! I pictured myself as quite the hero, exhibiting unparalleled intellectual prowess with my lab coat rippling in the wind as I held up a radiant flask in one hand and proudly clutched my calculator in the other. OK, so maybe I wouldn’t be applying all my specialised mathematical skills in Biology, but overnight I’d become a Bioscience PhD Student. I felt great!

That is, until I walked through the doors to the Bioscience department and finally had an extensive conversation with my supervisor and the rest of the lab. Suddenly, it seemed, I was expected to know the answers to Biology's toughest questions: why do we age, what's the primary mechanism responsible for plant growth, where do babies come from!? It hit me like a brick wall – despite what I’d thought, this wasn’t going to be easy. . .

Where did it all go wrong?

Feeling overwhelmed was an understatement. Very quickly, it became obvious that I was speaking an entirely different language to everyone else around me. After some brief overview of potential projects, actual experiments started to sound like a mysterious and blood-thirsty beast out to get me, and I immediately wanted to find ways to avoid them. Being notorious for sustaining most of my injuries through means of my own substandard spatial awareness and spaghetti fingers, I was convinced that if I stepped into a lab, it would be like bringing a vertigo-prone elephant to a tea party (the compulsory safety training didn’t help me feel any better).

So, there I was, wandering the corridors of a building whose doors carried formidable signs like “Microbes Matter” and “Biohazard”, while the most dangerous substance I’d ever handled was “Gorilla” superglue. I could almost hear the voice of David Attenborough in my head, narrating my uncanny appearance in this new eco-system:

“Here we may observe the Lone Mathematician, outside of its natural habitat. Other than gnawing on pen caps to keep its teeth sharp, the Mathematician possesses very few defence mechanisms to protect itself against predators. Unlike other, better adapted wildlife, the Mathematician camouflages poorly, so to protect against surprise enemy attacks, it marks its territory by populating its perimeter with funny bobble heads and obscure merchandise.

To lure out of safety: offer small amounts of chocolate or biscuits.”

Acclimatise and conquer: the basics

So, when / how did it all start getting better?

You must all be chewing your fingernails by now, leaning at the edge of your seats in hopes that this tale doesn’t end with my tragic descent into madness. Indeed, during much of this transition process into Math-Bio, I felt like I was drowning. Luckily, I had the support and guidance to help me resurface every time. I learned that doing a multi-disciplinary project, while exciting, is never easy and in a way, it never will be, because you are always playing catch-up with one of the subjects.

But! With sufficient persistence and positive thinking, things do start to work out, and here is how I got there. . .

The balance:

The beginning – oh, that was hard.

The better part of the first few months was spent attending lectures, reading articles and biology textbooks, and, obviously, worrying I wasn’t progressing fast enough. My supervisor was very understanding of the fact that I might need time to familiarise myself with the new topic, but that didn’t stop me from agonizing over every little hiccup and cursing my slow advancement on the research front.

How did I stay sane? Surprisingly, with work. Switching back from Biology to my old friend, Maths, was what kept my confidence from plunging. About 3/4 of my time was spent practicing new skills, reading and pulling my hair, while the remaining 1/4 gave me the relief of something familiar and steady until, eventually, I was able to start seeing both subject matters together rather than as separate entities.

Disturbing the ecosystem:

I admit. My fear of blowing up the Earth or somehow supergluing the continents together kept me away from the lab for almost a year. I stuck to my computer and wanted nothing to do with chemicals. Then, one day, I could run away no longer.

I put on the big, sciencey lab coat, went into a lab, and did a bunch of things. And some of it even worked.

Granted, it was daunting and completely different to the theory-centred research I was used to, but the hands-on experience of comparing what I was doing on my laptop to real life was eye-opening. Moreover, I was surprised to find out that even learning a few simple basics presented me with infinitely more connecting points for future collaborations and networking than before. True, juggling mathematics and practical work was (still is), a challenge. But trying to learn the lingo, asking questions and doing things propelled my research forward much faster than wasting time coming up with creative excuses.

‘I’m speaking English, I swear!’:

If you decide to mix disciplines, you’ll hear this a lot – “Communication will be hard!” – and you’ll probably not believe it. But it’s true.

Despite thinking I’d kept things super simple, my first big presentation yielded mainly glazed eyeballs, confusion, and a whole lot of people looking like they were either sending silent distress signals or using echolocation to find the nearest fire exit.

See, the problem was this: I liked showing them numbers. And they liked looking at, I don’t know, pictures of plants and animals and laboratory results and stuff.

So, by the time the next presentation came around, I’d abandoned my usual approach of fawning over complicated proofs and sexy Greek notation and had more visuals and comparisons to relate my ideas. Also, importantly, I had peppered my slides with shots from experiments to keep people calm. This was welcomed with relief from the audience, and even some nods of understanding. Still a long way to go before I stopped mystifying everyone – but progress was being made.

Light at the end of the tunnel:

So, what’s the final takeaway? Is a multi-disciplinary research worth it?

I think so. Finding the balance between relying on your strength and working on your weakness is a challenge, but the beauty of a multidisciplinary research is that you can truly make it your own. You can tailor it and pursue the bits of the different fields that you enjoy. Regardless of how intimidating it might be, there is no better way, I think, to appreciate the various faces of research, than to look beyond your comfort zone.

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Last Updated: 12 July 2018