Diseases of the Will

The Wall-Hoppers

By Chris Vaiana

People who suffer this variety of scientific schizophrenia are fueled by the notion that modern-day research must breach the borders that traditionally separate each discipline. Those affected by this illness claim that the walls surrounding chemistry, biology, and physics must be torn down to allow for a new breed of nomadic researcher, who will traverse the entire scientific desert unconstrained.

Symptoms are easily observed, and range from sloppy reporting of “out-of-field” results to wildly exaggerated claims of success. The synthetic chemist who kills a dish of cells with a new compound, and claims to have eradicated half the cancers in the world. The biologist who re-purposes a 20-year-old chemical, and claims to have invented a groundbreaking method of chemical analysis. The engineer who stitches some DNA together, and claims to have created life. Variants of this illness can be observed outside of science as well. Do you remember when Michael Jordan tried to play baseball? Or when Shaquille O’Neal started a music career?

It is true that expanding one’s skills beyond one’s own field can open up new perspectives, and lead to unprecedented innovation. But the term “discipline” exists for a reason. World-class research requires rules and structure, which take time and experience to master. The fact is, every scientist cannot know everything about everything. Extending one’s reach too far leads to weakness, just as it does in other facets of life. No military can defend unlimited borders. No doctor can perform all existing medical procedures. Why, then, do scientific wall-hoppers think they do good science outside of their field?

One leading risk factor for this disease is the isolation that scientists often build around their laboratories. A lab is a world unto itself, and the scientist is its ruler. He or she may feel that they can do as they see fit, and undertake any task regardless of their training. Perhaps the nomad simply needs help making friends. Friends who do different things, who can help those affected by sharing skills and resources. Proper multi-disciplinary research can be conducted through partnerships and collaborations, where each member has a specific, disciplined role. Reaching out to colleagues in other scientific specialties is highly encouraged, and creates synergy. Like kindergarteners playing at recess, scientists could benefit from having a mediator to help them learn how to share with others. If they can be told how to work together, perhaps they can be cured from their “jack-of-all trades” mentality, and return to becoming masters of the most important discipline: their own.

 


Chris Vaiana, who received a Ph.D. in chemistry from NYU, is a postdoctoral wall-hopper at MIT working in the multi-disciplinary field of synthetic biology.

 
Illustration by Angelika Manhart