I recently completed all requirements for my doctoral degree, and the diploma finally hangs in my office. What was first a long-term goal of attaining a PhD now almost seems like a short-term accomplishment, especially when thinking about the grand scheme of my career. As I navigate through next steps in my career, I feel more sure- footed, thanks to the unique training I received Emory’s Molecules to Mankind (M2M) Program, an innovative program that trains young researchers to integrate laboratory and population sciences. M2M left me with several valuable lessons, described below.
First, widen the lens. What is the value of the research outside of my own discipline? The M2M program encouraged a wide vision by placing the research into a broad context. In health sciences, a variety of policies, programs, and resources are needed to serve the needs of human health. Basic research and population research must work together to inform the public and improve health. By thinking broadly, i.e., across basic research, population research, and translational research, we understand the true value of the work.
Next, make new friends. Develop and maintain working relationships with colleagues from other disciplines and communicate regularly. Under the M2M program, we took coursework and attended seminars both in the laboratory and populations sciences, and we tried to solve research challenges as a group using a variety of methods. Certainly, learning the ‘basic language’ of an alternative discipline makes communication easier, and in M2M, we had this sort of orientation from faculty and students from a broad spectrum of academic disciplines and from several different institutions (i.e., Emory University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Finally, understand the challenges. Work within each research discipline contains barriers, yet we can also find opportunities by being cognizant of these barriers. These barriers can be turned into stepping stones to successfully climb forward. In M2M, we compared the challenges that lie within population, computational, and laboratory sciences. Then we studied examples of when these challenges were turned into opportunities for interdisciplinary research.
Ultimately, these three lessons and the kind of cross-talk described above have helped me feel more comfortable envisioning and enabling interdisciplinary research. Through these lessons, I feel empowered to think openly and creatively of how to tackle the research questions that are most pressing in health today.