Interdisciplinary Programs Lead to Innovative ResearchTodd Shields, Dean, Graduate School and International Education
Top tier universities often tout interdisciplinary graduate programs and research teams in their bragging points, but is this just a passing trend or the way of the future? Interdisciplinary programs benefit researchers by erasing lines between disciplines that sometimes are barriers to collaboration. However, some researchers lament that their interdisciplinary teams are “name only,” not really achieving the goals that were initially set for the group.
The University of Arkansas was an early adopter of interdisciplinary programs. Provost Sharon Gaber says that the university will continue to advance interdisciplinary research through all means possible, to keep the university growing toward the research institution we wish to be.
The Graduate School currently houses five interdisciplinary programs: public policy, space and planetary sciences, cell and molecular biology, gerontology, and microelectronics-photonics. Other interdisciplinary programs housed in academic colleges are comparative literature and cultural studies, environmental dynamics and plant science.
I see a bright future for interdisciplinary programs. Students are drawn to interdisciplinary programs because of the breadth of research projects and topics.
The public policy doctoral program, led by director Brinck Kerr, provides an opportunity for students and faculty to research important public policy problems in specialized areas of study such as aging, health, management and recreation.
The cell and molecular biology program under the direction of Douglas Rhoads was awarded $300,000 for three years for Research Experience for Undergraduates, which will enhance the diversity of that program. The grant will help us bring college students from historically black colleges, Hispanic serving institutions and tribal colleges to the university for a ten-week summer research program.
While some universities have struggled to put research teams together across traditional boundaries, the University of Arkansas has been able to make robust progress. Greg Salamo, one of the university’s first researchers to implement interdisciplinary graduate programs and research teams, put it this way: “One of the grand challenges facing our nation is the need to out-innovate our competition and be the place where new products are created and put into the marketplace. One exciting source of innovation is the ‘interdisciplinary program,’ which transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries to facilitate a greater diversity of ideas and knowledge.”
Interdisciplinary programs are here to stay, both at the University of Arkansas and nationally. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health both have grant programs for which only interdisciplinary programs can apply, and both agencies look favorably on proposals in all fields that have an interdisciplinary component. Jim Rankin, vice provost for research and economic development, says that interdisciplinary programs are important to the research enterprise.
Often, the synergy generated by researchers from different disciplines provides a better and more complete research product. This research is crucial in order for our university to lead in research productivity and to stay on the cutting edge of new discoveries.