UCSB Graduate Division Hosts Workshops on Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Photo by Samuel Yang | The Bottom Line

Xander Apicella

Last week, UCSB Graduate Division welcomed Mary Robson, a creative facilitator from Durham University, to lead a series of workshops for students and faculty on interdisciplinary collaboration.

Interdisciplinary work can be laborious and time-consuming as researchers strive to understand each other’s respective fields. Through Robson’s creative expertise, the Graduate Division sought to  “lessen the learning curve” on interdisciplinary collaboration; focus on how it could be better understood and facilitated to the benefit of all academic fields.

At Durham University’s Institute for Medical Humanities, Robson constructs teams for long-term research projects — like Hearing the Voice and The Life of Breath — that approach problems from interdisciplinary angles.

In her workshops, Robson often referred to Hearing the Voice, which examined the phenomenon of hearing a voice when there’s no one there. The project viewed the experience as a cultural, biological, anthropological, and psychological one, instead of having any one root or cause, such as schizophrenia.

UCSB has been increasingly engaging in similar projects, and it was these interdisciplinary possibilities that attracted faculty like Professor Joel Rothman to the university 22 years ago.

“I direct a program called Biomolecular Science and Engineering, a very interdisciplinary program that trains PhD students.” Rothman said. “The faculty in that program are from biology departments and chemistry and physics and…engineering and computer science…it’s truly interdisciplinary, and it is just a gas top to be a part of that mixture of communities.”

One of the numerous projects that Rothman’s lab group is working on is sending C. Elegans (small but complex worms) to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri. This will be done in collaboration with Professor Philip Lubin’s astrophysics group, and will tell us what happens to life at near-lightspeed.

Beyond faculty collaborations like Rothman’s, UCSB also provides opportunities for its students to engage in interdisciplinary work. Undergraduates can pursue an interdisciplinary major and graduate students have several interdisciplinary emphasis options.  

Taking interdisciplinary education one step further, the Graduate Division also created the UCSB Crossroads program in 2013. Initially launched as a three-year trial run, the program was officially re-introduced into the curriculum in 2018.

UCSB Crossroads is an interdisciplinary fellowship program for doctoral students. Three to five of these graduates are selected per quarter to collaborate with professors on research projects and classes of their own design. Undergrads can then take these classes to gain interdisciplinary experience.

“This is a way in which the graduate division really supports interdisciplinary education. The [UCSB] Crossroads program is a way that we actually fund interdisciplinary education, ” said Associate Dean of the Graduate Division, Mary Hegarty.

In an email statement to The Bottom Line, Dr. Sowon Park, an English professor at UCSB and key organizer of the workshop series, spoke of her Crossroads endeavor, The Unconscious Memory project. The project brings together the topic of human memory in neuroscience with the concept of the unconscious in world literature and the cognitive models from the field of artificial intelligence.

“Modern emphasis is falling increasingly on neurobiological algorithms and big data sets,” Park said. “The very meaning of the mind, free will and human values are undergoing deep alteration.” Within her program, neuroscientists, psychologists, computer scientists, and humanists learn from each other in order to provide a broader framework for understanding human behavior.

Dr. Park’s project has both a graduate course (Winter 2019) and an undergraduate course (Winter 2020) planned. These courses are opened to all disciplines and will focus on introducing students to interdisciplinary possibilities with fields outside of their academic background.

UCSB’s continual support of interdisciplinary studies makes it a flagship for other universities to follow, as well as a site of unique research and learning opportunities as programs like UCSB Crossroads gain more attention and funds.

Robson believes that interdisciplinary studies will open up new avenues as they continue to grow. “Single discipline research is crucial, and vital,” stated Robson. “In plumbing the depths of whatever the subject is, I think the added benefit of interdisciplinarity is…it takes you to places you never thought you could go.”