Feature

When University of California, Irvine, professor Daniel Stokols, PhD, was a social psychology student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the 1970s, he supplemented his curriculum with minors in sociology and city planning. After he graduated, he still felt a pull toward multidisciplinary work, so he accepted a faculty position at Irvine's then-new program of social ecology, now the School of Social Ecology.

The choice, recalls Stokols, raised some eyebrows among his faculty members: "My advisers said, 'Why would you go to such a newfangled, oddly named unit?'"

Stokols' advisers felt nervous about his joining an upstart program that might bring communication or funding challenges, or possibly even dissolve after a few years. Instead, the program grew into a school with four departments, offering Stokols unusual opportunities.

For starters, he has been able to team with scholars from sociology to geology to urban planning and economics and to help shape an interdisciplinary program focused on a goal he felt passionate about: teaching students to look at problems broadly and to apply their research findings to community problem-solving. Through his department he served with a team of university tobacco researchers that drafted a research and policy brief on teen-smoking prevention that was sent to all members of the California legislature, which this year has drafted bills to substantially increase the sales tax on cigarettes.

And as dean of the school, he pursued studies on how the effectiveness of transdisciplinary science and interdisciplinary research should be evaluated as these types of collaborations increasingly occur.

Although interdisciplinary programs are not a new phenomenon, a growing number of universities are creating such collaborative departments and training programs, and psychologists are joining the ranks of these diverse faculty mixes in areas such as women's studies, human development, environmental sciences and child development, to name a few. Though these jobs can bring extra challenges-such as communication hurdles that stem from diverse training-many faculty favor the diversity these programs deliver because, they say, real-world problems can't be solved by psychology alone, nor by any single discipline.

"We're increasingly aware of the fact that society's problems are inherently interdisciplinary," says Donald Wertlieb, PhD, a professor in the interdisciplinary Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, of which he is also a graduate.

Real-world appeal

The Tufts program's applied focus-a fundamental part of many interdisciplinary departments-attracted Wertlieb. The department grew out of a Boston nursery school established in the early 1900s to serve poor children. Wertlieb and his colleagues-which include a sociologist, attorney, pediatrician and communications scholar-work on projects that aim to improve their community, such as a teacher-preparation program that trains Boston-area teachers to boost their students' reading and writing skills.

An interest in applied work also drew psychologist Alan Hedge, PhD, to Cornell University's department of design and environmental analysis, which seeks to improve people's lives through design. Half of the department members have expertise in behavioral sciences-from psychology to economics-while the other half hold expertise in design, architecture or industrial design. Hedge and his colleagues have improved hospital design to benefit patients, helped museums plan multimedia exhibits and developed the lighting system that is now standard in most office buildings because it reduces glare on computer screens.

"We have done work that has shaped and affected the lives of thousands of people in the country-it's exciting and it's satisfying," says Hedge.

For others, their research is better housed in interdisciplinary departments. For example, when lesbian studies scholar and professor Esther Rothblum, PhD, was asked to join the interdisciplinary San Diego State University (SDSU) women's studies department-the oldest one in the country-she leapt at the chance.

"I had a very supportive psychology department, but an interdisciplinary department seems like a better fit," says Rothblum, who had been at the University of Vermont for 23 years. Her SDSU colleagues hail from molecular biology, anthropology and French literature, among other areas. Recently the department hired a political scientist with expertise on feminist activism.

Fine distinctions

The transition to working with a more myriad cast was seamless for Rothblum because her area of expertise has always exposed her to diverse scholars and she edits the interdisciplinary Journal of Lesbian Studies.

"I have always been very comfortable talking about my work with other disciplines," she says.

But not everyone acclimates to interdisciplinary work as easily as Rothblum did. Some scholars say communicating or collaborating on projects or research with their nonpsychologist colleagues requires diligence, time and patience.

"With any interdisciplinary activity, there's an ongoing need for conflation, sort of like the United Nations," says Hedge. "But sometimes things get lost in the translation even when we speak a common language."

That's because differences in his department go beyond variations in terminology and research approach. "Designers are more visual and have a more visual vocabulary, and scientists think in far less visual terms," notes Hedge. "Here, we are constantly being challenged to think about how to take design language and turn it into behavioral science language and then turn it back into a design language."

Building common language often requires carving out time to keep up with publications in colleagues' specialty areas in addition to your own, say interdisciplinary scholars.

Language barriers can also break down over time as faculty become more familiar with each others' work. But the passage of time and organizational growth don't always improve communication in an interdisciplinary environment, says Stokols, of the University of California, Irvine. As the small program he helped found grew into the School of Social Ecology with four multidisciplinary departments, it became more challenging for the school's leadership to keep faculty focused on common themes and communicating effectively.

"When we were small, it worked well and we understood each others' work," says Stokols. "As we grew, interdisciplinary communication and integration became more difficult."

As the school encountered growing pains, the faculty built in some safeguards to keep cross-disciplinary channels open, such as an annual awards program to encourage outstanding interdisciplinary work among students and faculty and cross-departmental focused research groups.

As an administrator, he learned that leading a diverse group of scholars requires a special touch. "The challenge is to keep it inclusive and set a tone where everyone feels included," says Stokols. "It is so easy for marginalization to happen in interdisciplinary groups depending on whose perspective becomes the more dominant."

Traditional or nontraditional?

An interdisciplinary department may not be for everyone, Hedge says. Early-career faculty may be at a disadvantage in such departments because administrators still favor mainstream research publications when evaluating scholars for tenure. Mainstream journals favor traditional research questions and approaches over the problem-oriented methodology many interdis-ciplinary scholars take, he notes.

"The whole system of promotion and tenure works against interdisciplinary studies," says Hedge. His department, for one, is roughly 80 percent senior faculty for whom tenure isn't a concern. "Ideally we want to have fresh young blood in, but the system isn't really set up to handle it."

Some departments, however, are more equipped for interdisciplinary tenure and promotion. When psychologist and tenured professor Gene Myers, PhD, of the interdisciplinary environmental studies department at Western Washington University, came up for tenure, his fellow faculty-none of whom are psychologists-recognized that they weren't able to fairly evaluate his research. As a result, they relied heavily on external letters from outside experts in his field about his publications. The program also values applied work and defines "professional product" beyond publications to include national recognition of a project, for example.

Interdisciplinary faculty are also quick to point out that interdisciplinary collaboration can only be useful when there's solid unidisciplinary work being carried on in traditional psychology departments. Hedge, for one, admits he has been tempted to return to what he says would be an "easier life" in a more traditional department where everyone speaks the same language.

"We all had a similar language, but we all looked at problems through the eyes of a psychologist," he says. "Here, everyone looks at a problem from a unique perspective…if you only favor one, then usually you only develop a partial solution."

The National Cancer Institute will host the conference "The Science of Team Science: Assessing the Value of Transdisciplinary Research," Oct. 30-31, in Bethesda, Md. For more information, contact Daniel Stokols, PhD or Richard Moser, PhD.