In 2001, my wife and I took the bold step of taking our baby daughter on a big trip to Europe. Getting there, suffice to say, was an anxious affair. Picture our arrival, two parents exhausted from not being able to sleep for two stressful days, and our daughter, fresh from a perfect 14-hour slumber during the flight. Add to that a poor choice of arrival time (midnight), and the horrid realization that in our exhausted state, we would need to keep our ‘very awake’ child quiet in a cramped hotel room overnight. But it was here, in the most unexpected of places, that I was witness to true brilliance. You see, on checking in, the hotel manager kindly informed us that there was a conference for deaf people, and that he had taken the liberty of booking every room around us with deaf clients — in effect, he had created a zone of deafness for our child.

Credit: David Ng

This experience had a big effect on me. It made me appreciate that inspired ideas can come from anywhere. At the time, as a young academic, this also helped me consider the inherent weaknesses embedded in the siloed nature of academic culture. In these normative research settings, the narrowness of the expertise on display can lead to wonderful discoveries, but arguably may miss out on alternative perspectives and epistemologies.

This is not a new idea, and there is a large body of social science that explores this in both research and education settings, much of which utilizes jargon and acronyms that would give any immunologist a run for their money (some readings I can suggest include refs. 1,2). Here, many of the concepts are rooted in interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary ideals, terms that tend to be familiar but often in vague public relations contexts. Still, when you dive into the literature, the evidence would suggest that good things do come out of fostering connections across areas of knowledge.

Indeed, when taking such an approach, one becomes both the expert and the novice — a mixture that creates tension, but a remarkable tension at that. Ultimately, it highlights that there can be many similarities across different areas, but also that there are, indeed, different ways of knowing. The latter is a lesson that can often get lost when your career has been highly focused, but new ways of knowing lead to new ways of thinking, which can be exciting, rejuvenating, innovative and possibly even a precursor to higher impact research3.

In addition, working outside your comfort zone helps you to better see how your expertise or agency fits into larger-problem contexts, which is an especially pertinent point these days. Our planet, to put it mildly, is going through some stuff. Large-scale global problems, for example climate change, and other challenges that the United Nations Sustainable and Millennium Development Goals attempt to address, require problem-solving approaches that span and link multiple areas of expertise. This can easily be seen for climate change (technically, we know what needs to be done), and COVID-19 (technically, we have the tools), because it is clear that the science alone is not enough. However, because academics tend to silo themselves, this important notion can still feel distant. And without fostering interactions, biases can take hold, sometimes leading to a failure in acknowledging the importance of other approaches4. Ironically, and to circle back to our travel tale, we do not actually want to have zones of deafness. Instead, we need to massage the mechanics of research culture so that these cross connections can more easily take hold.

Models of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary engagement exist. Some take the form of ‘created’ centres that bring researchers from different disciplines together, to foster interactions. Others rely on overarching funding bodies that provide opportunities to enable collaborations. Ultimately, however, I believe that we need academia to establish metrics that reward involvement with interdisciplinary research. That being said, I realize that having this change quickly enacted in significant ways would be naive. Research moves like molasses, and the culture of research moves like molasses on ice. Plus, we cannot forget the obvious benefits that come with the nurturing of focused expertise.

But perhaps I can suggest a gentle step towards this end. We could incorporate more exposure to interdisciplinary work by allowing teaching faculty and staff more freedom to engage in these pursuits. They can still teach their microbiology courses and expound the importance of microorganisms that underpin entire ecosystems and our health, but with provided bandwidth, support and curiosity, they can also expound the same concepts to policymakers, economists or artists and see how this knowledge academically and socially is reciprocated, tension and all.

As someone who has lived this academic life for two decades, I am convinced that the faculty and teaching staff would benefit greatly from such experiences, and by proxy, their departmental colleagues and students would make substantial gains too.