Negotiating a hard multidisciplinary position

Labs come in many shapes and sizes. I’ve worked in L shaped labs, U shaped labs and even labs shaped in letters of non-latin alphabets with lot os squiggles. I’ve also worked in small labs (2 people), very small labs (just me), medium sized labs (10 people) and huge labs (50 people). I didn’t really work in the last one so much as constantly argue about border issues, equipment hoarding and who has to clean up the crater where Joe used to be.

Right now I’m in a lab that is sort of an in-between size. It’s made up of around 20 researchers in a suite of ~18 labs. We need lots of separate rooms because we have lasers that get all uppety if we make them share.

The group is made up of a wide mix of researchers, from electronics to physics to biochemistry (me). Primarily, it’s a physics and engineering group but it’s probably the most multidisciplinary group I’ve ever worked in. And that includes that time I worked in a lab with a modern art sculpture artist.

But as multidisciplinary as it is, there are still some dividing lines which delineate what we all do. There’s a fiber sensors subgroup, a gas sensing subgroup, a biochemistry subgroup, and then a few researchers working in a mix of smaller areas. There is plenty of collaboration between us all but there are still these loose affiliations. Many of which are really just political left overs from the projects the group or subgroup were founded with.

Now my part of that, the biochemistry bit, is the most recent addition to the group and has always bene a little more removed from the group that the others. My labs are stand-alone chemical cleanrooms that sit across a corridor from the others (which are all together in a block). That physical separation that has always made the Biochemistry work feel that bit more independent from the rest of the group. We obviously work together a lot but crossing the blue corridor has always made it feel a little more removed.

Now from the outside it might look like it would make a lot of sense to separate from the rest of the group and become more of a stand-alone biochemistry group.  I’ve been at countless conferences where other academics look baffled at the idea that I spend my time trying to find ways to combine both physics and biochemistry from my small lab. The most common opinion is that a small biochemistry lab like mine would be better off focusing on biochemistry and growing into an equal to the physics labs, rather than just operating as a satellite lab.

 

This is certainly a very popular model elsewhere in academia. There’s a big push for biochemistry and physics groups to work together but the funding is often aimed at bringing together larger independent research groups that can collaborate, while retaining their individual speciality.

I could try to break away from the group and become more independent. I’d have to immediately lose all the financial benefits, and the free movement of equipment and materials would probably have to come to an end, but at least I’d be an easily identifiable ‘biochemistry’ group that other physicists might agree to start collaborating with. Also I’d get to call myself an independent group, a group of one but still it would be MY group.

Alternatively I could stay in my role as one part of a multidisciplinary group that collaborates and works together already. From time to time I have to take some of the MSc student projects which have a habit of migrating to my lab. But these are inevitably great ways of doing work I’ve been putting off, or simply training up students to try a full PhD. Students that I get to train first normally are the best for me to work with. And so far, rather than limit working with external physicists, it’s been very helpful to be able to talk the same language and bring more projects into the group.

The question really is – do I want to try and continue being multidisciplinary while working in a diverse team of academics with varied backgrounds? Or do I want to become an isolated speciality focused lab that has to work hard to find other academics to collaborate with elsewhere?

You know, I think this would best be decided by a group vote…

1 Comment for “Negotiating a hard multidisciplinary position”

says:

[…] I’m hugely in favour of this, partly because everyone working together sounds like the right thing to do, but mostly because I’m a biochemist working in a physics department and I’ve staked my entire career on people wanting to work on lots of cross-science projects. That should have been clear from my thinly veiled Brexit analogy blog post. […]

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