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News and events
Nov. 21, 2013

Radical interdisciplinarity

Allyson Kennedy researches what occurs in development to create human birth defects such as cleft lip.

Yet for a research project, Kennedy and her research partners employed a technique most often used to examine fossil records.

“And we read a lot of papers that were outside of our field to get an idea of how to best apply our method,” she said, citing works in ecology, paleontology and even psychology.

Stephen Via hopes to use his research to identify explosives hidden in soil by that soil’s plant life. In addition to plant physiology and ecology, Via and his team employ physics to examine how light reflects off the vegetation.

“We’re approaching soil chemistry, how the soil compounds go into the plants, how they’re then altering the plants’ health and function, and then how we can detect all of this,” he said.

Student with poster
ILS student Neha Sakhawalkar discusses her poster, “Protein-Protein Interaction Networks in Microbes and Ecosystems: A Novel Technology Using Next Generation Sequencing” at Monday’s ILS Student Research Showcase.

Kennedy and Via are Ph.D. students in VCU Life Sciences’ Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) program. Each presented at Monday’s fourth annual ILS Student Research Showcase, which featured four student presentations and a poster session with 11 student presenters.

All of the research on display exemplified what Thomas Huff, Ph.D., VCU’s vice provost for life sciences and research, uses as a chief characterization of VCU’s ILS program: “radical interdisciplinarity.”

It is a concept William Eggelston, Ph.D., ILS Program director, said is the future of science.

“The days of one principal investigator sitting isolated in a lab are fast going away,” he said. “Multidiscipline, multidepartment and multiuniversity research is the future.”

Huff said this future was recognized 12 years ago when then-VCU President Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., leveraged VCU’s two-campus opportunity in working to establish VCU Life Sciences, which has come to embrace radical interdisciplinarity and a systems-based approach, “relying on a universitywide matrix organization that includes hundreds of faculty members.”

Student with poster
Fulbright scholar and ILS student Julie Charbonnier with her poster at Monday’s ILS Student Research Showcase. Conducted in Donana National Park, Spain, her experiment examined relationships between possible climate change outcomes and resulting tadpole population densities.

Today, ILS represents what multicampus, interdisciplinary research can be. The flexible program offers students opportunities to draw from the varied disciplines that comprise VCU Life Sciences as well as to work in laboratories on both campuses.

Those disciplines – including biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, forensic science, bioinformatics, physics and many others – have been fused in ILS research to identify genes associated with aging in yeast, to characterize reproductive patterns in James River Sturgeon, and as Kennedy shared with the group this week, to quantify orofacial development and median clefts.

An advantage beyond interdisciplinary research being a more powerful way to approach scientific questions, Huff said, “is that the job market and corporate employers work on interdisciplinary teams, so having our students already familiar with the work style of a highly interdisciplinary team gives them a leg up.”

Kennedy agrees that so far the approach has given her a leg up in her research.

Student with poster
Benjamin Colteaux discusses his ILS poster, “Historic Commercial Harvest of Snapping Turtles in Virginia.” Part of his abstract reads, “The most well-known examples of population collapses due to overharvesting have been documented in fisheries; however, reptiles, particularly turtles, are also threatened.”

“For us, with birth defects, they’re a multifaceted process in how they arise and the tissues that are affected, so it makes sense to take a multifaceted approach to studying them,” she said. “And a lot of things in science are like that; there are a lot of variables that go into many things and it makes sense to take different approaches to get to the heart of it – to get to the answer.”

The answer Via seeks addresses the concern that people are unknowingly coming across land mines and cluster bombs around the world with horrific results.

“We want to develop a system where you just go in and look at the vegetation without endangering human life,” he said. “And the ILS program is essential to my work because I have to have an understanding of chemistry, physics, plant function, soil function, microbial function –and I’ll admit that I’m not strong in all of those areas – but the ILS program has encouraged me to go out and find people that are strong in all of those areas.

“You can’t be a narrow-minded scientist that only studies a small facet of a system. You now have to look at the broader scale and take into consideration all of these different factors.”

Student with poster
ILS student Catherine Vaughan discusses her poster at Monday’s ILS Student Research Showcase. Her research focuses on p53, the most frequent mutated “driver” gene in some cancers, including lung cancer. The project demonstrates that a lung cancer cell’s capability of causing tumors can be blocked by certain targeting, thus pointing toward new treatment strategies for the majority of lung cancer patients.