Fitzpatrick Event Spotlights Interdisciplinary Scientific Collaboration

October 3, 2006

The annual Fitzpatrick Institute for Photonics symposium on “Photonics at the Frontiers of Science and Technology” at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering highlighted the value of collaboration across disciplines for making future advances in science and technology. Photonics is the science and technology of light and its interaction with matter.

Held on Sept. 28 and 29, the event drew 250 registrants, three times the number that had participated in years past.

“Major discoveries will be made at the interface of basic research and applied engineering,” said Tuan Vo-Dinh, director of the Fitzpatrick Institute and a professor of biomedical engineering, pointing to the discovery of new scientific instruments -- such as the atomic force microscope (AFM) -- as drivers of new scientific thought. The AFM allows scientists to see and manipulate individual atoms and molecules.

The 1 1/2-day symposium began with a keynote address by Nobel laureate Charles Townes, co-inventor of the laser. While detailing the many advances of lasers for disciplines ranging from astronomy to medicine, Townes recalled early doubts from many “famous physicists” and others that lasers could work and about their usefulness.

“It’s amazing how shortsighted we can be -- how easy it is to be blocked,” Townes said. He called on the audience to ask themselves, “What are we missing now?”

An important means for recognizing scientific opportunity is through work with others having different expertise or backgrounds, participants noted. At a panel discussion entitled “Science & Engineering for the New Era: Breaking the Discipline Barriers,” experts offered some advice on successful collaboration.

The following represents some of the top recommendations of the audience and panel members, who included Nobel laureate Peter Agre, vice chancellor for science & technology at Duke Medical Center; Paul Domanico, vice president of technology development at GlaxoSmithKline; Michael Feld, director of the G. Harrison Spectroscopy Laboratory at MIT; and Warren Warren, director of the Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging at Duke.

* Be open to collaboration.

* Interdisciplinary work requires translators. You must reach a common vocabulary.

* Remember that interdisciplinary accomplishments are not made without strong disciplinary work.

* Pursue your work with clarity and purpose. Understand the desired outcome, recognizing that it might differ for those in different disciplines.

* Learn to be comfortable with a lack of total knowledge.

* In addition to considering a diversity of knowledge, consider working internationally and with people from different personal backgrounds. They may have different kinds of ideas.

* Personality is important. Find people who can look across their own “toolbox” to bring insight to the broader issues of a problem.

* Interdisciplinary knowledge is key, but one mustn’t try to learn everything.

* Concentrate strongly on specific problems and make contacts with others to maintain the broader perspective.

* Be flexible.

See the Fitzpatrick Center website for more information about the institute and the symposium.