The existential crisis of being an interdisciplinary scientist.

Two days ago, I was called a physicist.

Not that I find that an insult, quite the contrary. I have been called a physicist before, just not by another physicist. My working environment consists almost solely of biologists, of all sorts and kinds, and on occasion when I walk in a room or join a table, a conversation much like this one would start:

“You’re a physicist, right?”

“Not really, well sort of, I guess.”

“So, is it better wrap food with the shiny part of aluminium foil on the inside.” Or another physicky question I don’t actually know the answer to.

But the thing is, I would never describe myself as a physicist. And I always had the impression that even if biologists would describe me as a physicist, physicist would rather describe me as a biologist. I don’t consider myself a biologist either.

So when two days ago a physicist said to me: “I see you as a physicist,” I got catapulted into an existential crisis.

Who am I? is a philosophical question and difficult enough. Now I was asking myself asking: What am I?

Yeah, human. A bunch of cells organised into tissues and organs and a body. A set of connections and bioelectrical signals making up a consciousness. But I don’t think that will qualify as a good answer at, say, a future job interview.

I have recently described myself – during my debut as a stand-up comedian(*) – as an inbetweener (no, not one of these). My research lies on the interface between biology/life science and physics/engineering. The whole point of the project I’m in, is to create a new cohort of interdisciplinary scientists that are able to talk to both biologists or clinicians, and physicists, essentially bridging the gap between both worlds. If you’re wondering why interdisciplinary research is even worth pursuing, a recent Nature special does a pretty good job describing the advantages (and current issues). Note that one of the ways to promote interdisciplinary research is: “Invest in interdisciplinary PhD cohorts, co-supervised by academics from diverse departments or faculties.” Exactly.

But my point is that, most of the time, people undertaking interdisciplinary research have a solid background in one particular field. You might have heard of physicists merging into biology or biologists dabbling in physics. Most of the people in my program fall in this category, they are either physicists or biologists and doing research on the interface.

But not me. I started out interdisciplinary. I usually describe myself as a bio-engineer, even though that’s not really what my MSc diploma says (but no matter what I say -“nanotechnologist, “bionanotechnologist” or “bio-engineer” – it almost always merits further explanation and I feel the latter describes me best). Unfortunately, a test linked to that recent Nature special tells me that “I am not truly an interdisciplinary scientist, I am able to talk about different subject but to not have the core understanding of all of them.” If this is correct – assuming online tests have some fraction of truth – shouldn’t I then have a core understanding in one field? What would that field even be?

I sometimes *jokingly* say that as a bio-engineer, I know a bit about a lot of different things, but never a lot about one thing. I then *jokingly* say that this is *very useful*. This sarcasm is quite often true; I’m constantly reminded of gaps in my knowledge. Fortunately, I am occasionally reminded of the advantages of my background. I know of a lot of things. I’m capable of absorbing a lot of information in relatively short amounts of time because I have a basic understanding of the lingo and concepts in all these various fields. I have a certain way of approaching a problem. As I have pointed out in a previous post, I am an engineer, trust me, and that comes with a certain mindset and way of thinking, and probably the type of mind that has difficulty asking for help and is socially awkward. Hmm, *very useful*.

Which leads to another existential question: Did I study engineering because I have an engineering-type mind, or did studying engineering develop my engineery mind? It’s the nature-nurture debate. And the answer is probably also: most likely a combination of both.

Maybe all interdisciplinary scientists go through existential crises sometimes, because they’re never really sure where they fit in best. Luckily not fitting in isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m not sure if I made any progress on answering the question What am I?, but I’m thinking about myself and I guess that’s part of a PhD as well; it’s not only about science, it’s also a path of self-discovery.

In other news, I seem to have had an overdose of Mars in the past few weeks: I finished reading Brian Cox’s Human Universe, where he states that space exploration and sending humans to Mars is basically a must (if you consider how much advancement moon exploration has helped our advance), they have discovered evidence of water on mars (Dont’t drink the water. Don’t even touch it. Not one drop.), I saw The Martian the day before NASA published a document outlining their strategy to send people up there. It makes me wish I never gave up on my dream to become an astronaut (when I was about 8, and realised that there’s no way someone scared of dogs could be a vet).

(*) I have no real plans of becoming a stand-up comedian, it was just a really awesome and scary thing I tried recently.

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