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Vice Provost Neal Sullivan, at right, poses with several of the CIR fellows who were on campus this summer. They are, from left, David Walsh, David James, Michael Arbib, Aristides Requicha and Shrikanth Narayanan.

Photograph by Philip Channing

Issue: Autumn 2004

How Many Academics Does It Take?

The old light-bulb joke isn't a laughing matter at USC any more. Getting professors to work together to solve society's big problems is the subject of serious inquiry.

by Gia Scafidi and Diane Krieger

We tend to think of universities as intellectual power plants in which professors, crammed onto densely-packed campus grids, continually rub foreheads.

You’d think intellectual sparks would fly down hallways, or that bold ideas would bounce across quads, ricocheting off columns of stately architecture. The reality isn’t quite as electrifying. Yes, physicists talk to physicists, and linguists to other linguists. Art historians might even talk to fine artists; biomedical engineers to microbiologists.

But the boundaries that keep disparate scholars apart – aptly figured in the metaphor of “disciplinary walls” – often act like circuit breakers in the modern university. Though they may teach in the same classrooms, serve on the same committees, even go to the same dinner parties, faculty from unrelated fields seldom rub foreheads in volt-producing ways.

And what’s wrong with that? you may ask.

At first glance, intellectual segregation makes perfect sense. When you want to solve a problem, focus, unity of vision and purity of purpose should produce the quickest and best results. And sometimes it does. But sometimes it doesn’t. Creativity can be messy. Innovation often thrives on disagreement. The doges of Venice knew it. So did the designers of the Manhattan Project.

There’s no shortage of modern technological, scientific and aesthetic breakthroughs demonstrating how the merger of unlikely fields pays extraordinary dividends in new knowledge. Think of telemedicine, fuel-cell cars, digital animation or the acoustics in Disney Hall.

Increasingly, university leaders are asking themselves: How do we encourage this process? How do we build in incentives to support faculty members in their explorations of other disciplines?

Neal Sullivan returned to USC in 1997 with a mandate to power up interdisciplinary research here. A biological oceanographer, he had previously headed NSF’s Office of Polar Programs and U.S. Antarctic Program.

Photo by Philip Channing

Meet Cornelius Sullivan, vice provost for research at USC. In 2002, Sullivan and USC provost Lloyd Armstrong, Jr. dreamed up the USC Center for Interdisciplinary Research, an incubator for scholarly fusions that increasingly moonlights as a think-tank exploring just what interdisciplinary work is, how it is nurtured, and why and where it springs up in the first place.

A biological oceanographer, Sullivan came to USC as an assistant professor in 1974. Now an internationally recognized scientist responsible for rebuilding the South Pole Station, he has spent his whole career – except for a four-year hiatus heading up the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs and U.S. Antarctic Program – at USC.

In 1997, Sullivan returned from Washington, D.C., with a mandate to jump-start interdisciplinary research here. It was already one of the four priorities articulated in the university’s 1994 Strategic Plan; a new plan in the final stages of development, one designed to map out USC’s future over the next decades, places even more importance on it.

“Society expects the university to solve its major problems,” says Sullivan, pointing out that the National Institutes of Health alone award $28 billion a year in research grants and the Department of Defense spends even more on R&D.

And when you’re tackling really big problems – like terrorism or ozone depletion – a single-disciplinary approach is sure to miss the mark. For research universities, there’s both an ethical and a financial imperative to develop the kinds of research teams that can attack these issues.

Unfortunately, interdisciplinary researchers don’t grow on trees; they must be seeded and cultivated in disciplinary soil. And that soil can be stubbornly unreceptive to exotic new crops. “Interdisciplinarity” isn’t an ingrained part of academic culture yet, explains Sullivan. “It’s emerging, but it’s still a small, small part of what we do.”

Sullivan is determined to help change that. His first push at USC was to re-route half of the $500,000 pot awarded annually in Zumberge Faculty Research Incentives to interdisciplinary projects. The decades-old fund, established by former USC president James H. Zumberge to support younger faculty, had originally been unrestricted.

The Center for Interdisciplinary Research was the next logical step. Now in its third year, the program sponsors six tenured or tenure-track faculty, each of whom receives up to $50,000 in grants. And, more importantly, during their fellowship year, these CIR scholars are released from teaching and service obligations (except responsibilities to their graduate students) for the year of their appointment.

“In effect we pay off their deans to replace their teaching obligations. That’s a big deal,” says Sullivan. Sort of a bonus sabbatical in residence.

Historian Lisa Bitel draws on architecture, environmental studies, geography and art history in her investigation of medieval women saints.

Photo by Philip Channing

Medieval historian Lisa Bitel just wrapped up her year as a CIR fellow. Trained in Celtic languages and literature, she is writing a book on the origins of St. Briget, a 6th-century Irish saint, and St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. What makes Bitel’s research interdisciplinary is that it draws on architecture, environmental studies, geography and art history. “I’m particularly interested in what kinds of places belonged to women, what kind of spaces they could patronize, or move through freely,” she says, “and how that intersected with Christian ideas regarding the nature of women, where women belonged and what they could or could not do.”

These themes first intrigued her in the 1980s. As a doctoral student, she would periodically drag her husband to Ireland “over sheep pastures and hilltops to look at the ruins of monastic sites,” Bitel says, “trying to understand their layout and the conversion of pagan places to Christian places.” In 2003-04, she had a chance to pursue her extra-disciplinary passion for a year uninterrupted.

As with all CIR fellows, Bitel began her project with a proposal submitted to a review panel of University Professors – a distinction conferred upon USC faculty members whose expertise crosses disciplinary lines – and other distinguished faculty with interdisciplinary expertise. Once the committee ranks the proposals and makes its recommendations, Sullivan and Armstrong appoint the year’s fellows.

At the end of the year, the fellows typically emerge with a book, or a new center, or a major grant. If that were the end of the story, there wouldn’t be anything particularly original about it. But the CIR’s underlying goal is far more ambitious.

As things now stand, the academic deck is heavily stacked against interdisciplinary research, especially in the case of younger faculty. Departments make tenure decisions based on disciplinary contributions, not on interesting outside projects. Motivating faculty to take a crack at a cross-disciplinary problem isn’t easy, Sullivan has found.

This has prompted him to ask some lofty questions: “How do we change the culture? How can we make interdisciplinary research more accepted, more appreciated, more successful?”

At a more basic level, how do we even identify it?

“There’s a great distinction in what people think of as interdisciplinary work,” Sullivan explains.

Bitel’s project on the two saints is a case in point. “To me, interdisciplinary research means using ideas and methods as best you can from other fields of study to enrich your own,” she says.

In other words, she works alone. But can a single person do interdisciplinary work?

Humanists and artists tend to think so. “It’s like a one-man band – you know, with the horns, drums, cymbals,” Sullivan jokes.

Scientists, on the other hand, are accustomed to team-based research even within a discipline. They “live and die by writing grant proposals,” explains Sullivan. “And in these proposals, do you know how much typically goes for salaries? Eighty to 90 percent.”

For the moment, Sullivan is keeping an open mind – though as a life scientist, he’s instinctively biased toward the team approach.

But after sifting through more than a hundred CIR grant proposals, he has noticed another curious trend: not only are humanists lone wolves, they also seem to be very low-maintenance. They will ask for air fare and a month’s living expenses while they visit a library in Rome or Alexandria. The typical science application will request stipends for a few graduate assistants or a post-doctoral associate.

Do humanists genuinely need less money to do research, Sullivan wondered. Or are they merely so chronically under-funded that it doesn’t occur to them to ask?

He is currently testing the latter theory. “I’ll say to humanists: ‘You know, you can ask for more money. Why don’t you think about inviting some of your colleagues from elsewhere – Cambridge, Oxford, the Sorbonne? Get them to talk, work with them and their graduate students, convene a seminar or a symposium, create a salon, be more interactive?’” Taking the hint, most have come back with beefed-up budgets.

Humanists aren’t the only ones to embrace the one-man band approach. In the first year of the CIR fellowships, economist Timur Kuran took on a solo project spanning law, economics, history, sociology, political science and cultural studies. His goal: to explain Islamic law’s role in delaying economic development in the Middle East. His work has resulted in a book and four journal articles.

Kuran works alone not so much by choice as necessity. “Most qualified economists know nothing about the economic history of the Middle East,” he says, “and most specialists on Islam or the Middle East have had practically no exposure to the modern social sciences.” His biggest challenge as an interdisciplinary scholar, he says, is finding academics who can give him meaningful feedback.

For many scholars, however, especially those in the sciences, “interdisciplinarity” is defined as collaboration with other researchers whose work is distant from their own.

“It involves people who bring different perspectives to the same problem,” says Shrikanth Narayanan, a 2003-04 CIR fellow. If anyone has the wherewithal to be a one-man band, this Indian-born professor of electrical engineering, linguistics and computer science does. Yet he chooses to collaborate with other linguists and engineers, along with psychologists, communication specialists and mathematicians, in his work on information technologies geared for children.

“Since high school, I’ve been fascinated by the complexities of humans and what intricate machines we are,” he says. “One day I’d like to make machines recognize and respond to human language and gestures.”

Narayanan’s CIR year allowed him to work on other projects too, including a study into the biological aspects of speech and an NSF-funded literacy assessment he is developing with colleagues from USC, UCLA and UC Berkeley. He also recently forged a partnership with fellow CIR researcher Thomas Lyon, a law professor with a background in developmental psychology. Together they are starting a USC center for child studies.

Lyon, in turn, used his CIR fellowship to complete a major grant proposal supporting the study of how maltreated children can best be interviewed. With colleagues from the School of Social Work, USC College’s psychology department and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, he is starting an internship program for law students that will train them to conduct interviews with suspected child-abuse victims.

For Michael Arbib, interdisciplinary research is both individual challenge and team-based effort. The USC professor of computer science and neuroscience hopes to test his theory that the development, millions of years ago, of the brain mechanism for the recognition of hand gestures provided the key evolutionary bridge between primate calls and the human capacity for language and speech. “A project like that involves many different talents,” says Arbib, a 2002-03 fellow. “You have to know about the brain, language, primates, movement and vision.”

Arbib’s CIR fellowship involved a group of nearly 20 USC faculty members from various fields. The team recently finished a book summarizing their findings, Action to Language via the Mirror Neuron System; it will be released next year by Cambridge University Press.

A year later Arbib’s colleague, computer scientist Aristides Requicha, used his CIR fellowship to study biological nano-electromechanical systems – tiny devices that may one day detect and treat diseases. The emerging field is fraught with interdisciplinary challenges.

“There’s no way I could do this on my own,” says Requicha. “I’m a roboticist, but I must collaborate with chemists, material science people, biologists and others.”

So which is it? Does interdisciplinary work require collaboration or can it be accomplished alone? The jury is still out, says Sullivan.

If interdisciplinarity is the Holy Grail of research, think of CIR fellows as knights of the Round Table: seekers not only of specific results, but of the higher truths of interdisciplinarity itself. For example: What is the glue that holds research groups together, the sina qua non of any team-based approach?

Mutual respect? Personal friendship? No and no.

“I believe what holds them together,” Sullivan says, “is graduate students.”

Focused, ambitious and results-oriented, they are most importantly mobile. “They’ll go from one lab to another, drive from one campus to another,” Sullivan says. They’re also abundant. “Students want this. Large numbers of students want to work in this intellectually stimulating environment.”

Topics like this receive frequent, lively debate from CIR fellows. As part of the program, fellows attend bi-weekly two-hour seminars that bring together current and past scholars to discuss their projects, new and emerging discoveries, unique approaches and important issues and challenges they face with interdisciplinarity.

Both Sullivan and Armstrong are active participants in these meetings.

“And I can tell you there aren’t a lot of activities Lloyd does four hours every month for two to three years,” says Sullivan. “That the provost spends all that time with CIR scholars is another dramatic demonstration of how important he thinks this effort is and how involved he is personally.”

Just to put that in perspective: “In 30 years as a faculty researcher at USC,” Sullivan says, “I hardly ever saw the provost, much less had a chance to sit down with him for hours, talking about my research, my interests and my views of the research environment of our university. Every one of these scholars has that opportunity, which is remarkable.”

Roboticist Maja Mataric accompanied Sullivan to a meeting of AAU senior research officers as a case study. There is no model for what the CIR is doing.

Photo by Michele A.H. Smith

The CIR fellows recognize their good fortune. “The access you have to top administration is immeasurably useful,” says computer scientist and former CIR fellow Maja Mataric. “You can learn from them and they can hear from you directly.”

The contact with colleagues from far-flung fields is no less valuable. Mataric, whose 2002-03 CIR fellowship led to the creation of USC’s Center for Robotics and Embedded Systems, recalls a recent meeting in which the discussion somehow turned to humanists’ attitudes toward scientists.

“I was really stunned,” she says. “I’m very aware of the [tensions] between engineering and science, but I had no idea about this humanities-science rift.”

As the conversation veered to gender, race and other biases that can impede one’s research, Mataric’s eyes widened.

“This was just fascinating,” says the Yugoslavian-born roboticist. “The humanities folks said, ‘Surely you know about this. We’ve studied it for decades.’ And we in the sciences said, ‘No. We had no idea.’ There’s no question we’re learning in both directions.”

Humanists are no less intrigued with the differences in how researchers collaborate.

“Talking with the scientists has really made me reconsider in what ways I might work with a team of historians, and how that could then go into the classroom or a publication,” says medievalist Bitel.

There’s no model for what the CIR is doing. “We’re inventing it as we go along,” says Sullivan. He presented the concept at a recent meeting of senior research officers from Association of American University institutions, with Mataric along as a case study. Vice provosts from Stanford to MIT responded with eager curiosity. The consensus was that USC is on to something.

In three years, the community has grown from six, to 12 to 19 scholars starting this fall. “Lloyd and I have come to believe that this is a very rich learning experience,” says Sullivan.

Psychologist David Walsh, who remains an active member of the CIR community two years after his fellowship ended, calls it “the most interesting, intellectual life I have seen at USC in my many years here” – and he’s been here since 1975.

Walsh’s project brought together physicians from the Keck School of Medicine and the USC/Norris Cancer Center and his undergraduate and graduate psychology students to study how breast cancer patients make complex decisions regarding treatment. Drawing on his previous research on financial decision-making, Walsh hoped to develop a method for turning medical novices into overnight experts.

“We have patients being inundated with this great complexity, where they have no idea of what is or isn’t important,” he says. “Nor do we have any measures of whether they understood what they were told or understand the basis or consequences of the decisions they’re making.”

Engineer Norberto Grzywacz has always been drawn to diverse knowledge, cultures and languages. Born and raised in Brazil and educated in Jerusalem, he is fluent in Portuguese, Hebrew, Spanish, English and French. Last year as a CIR fellow, Grzywacz tackled yet another language: that of his peers.

“The biggest challenge I find in my work is being able to speak with my colleagues and be understood,” says Grzywacz, a 2003-04 CIR fellow whose project involves working with faculty from USC College, the Keck School of Medicine and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering to start a vision center combining brain research, computation and technology.

“We all tend to use language specific to our own field,” he says. “Where I may be able to express myself well with equations, there may be a biologist who’s not as comfortable. So I must find a common language that both of us can speak.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that many of the CIR fellows come from multinational, polyglot backgrounds. Take historian Vanessa Schwartz, a 2002-03 CIR fellow who used her year off to research a book on “Frenchness” and cosmopolitanism in French and American film culture.

As a child, Schwartz had attended a French school in New York. “I lived in a bicultural world, somehow managing to be both American and French at the same time,” she says.

In 2003, her CIR project took her to Paris, where she explored dusty archives on everything from the Cannes Film Festival to the foundation of the French Film Office in New York. Later at Brigham Young University, she studied rare collections about movie theaters that showed foreign films in America.

The same goes for the British-born David James. As a teen, he was enthralled by American pop culture. Though all his degrees are in English literature (he wrote his dissertation on British poet-painter William Blake), James now has joint appointments in cinema and comparative literature. His CIR fellowship last year supported his current book project, an ambitious history of how movies have assimilated the last 50 years of American pop music, from early rock ’n’ roll to today’s hip-hop.

Language and culture aside, CIR fellows agree it takes a certain personality to pursue interdisciplinary research.

“Intellectually, you are willing to continue to learn new fields,” says Schwartz. “Your attitude toward new learning and training is like that of a graduate or postdoctoral student. You’re actually opening books that you couldn’t have imagined opening up five years ago.”

Along with the immense potential of interdisciplinary research, however, also come major challenges.

“There are a lot of pressures on people not to become multidisciplinary,” says Thomas Lyon, the law and psychology specialist.

“We still have the ‘publish or perish’ approach that says you must publish as many papers as you can to get tenure. That leads people to narrow their focus.”

Those with tenure are in a better position to follow their discipline-defying hearts. “Well-established professors have the luxury to branch out,” says Timur Kuran, the economist who is interested in Koranic law’s impact on Middle Eastern financial systems.

“Having proven themselves in their home disciplines and enjoying job security, they are able to take risks that young colleagues cannot afford.”

But even then, there are subtle, built-in pressures that discourage faculty from wading in uncharted waters.

“You are neither fish nor fowl,” says Schwartz, speaking from experience. “The historians think you’re a little weird, and the art historians and film critics know you’re not one of them.”

“It’s a tough road,” Sullivan says. “Detractors of the interdisciplinary movement also say this approach is fuzzy, not well-defined and not high-quality. I disagree. Excellent interdisciplinary research, like excellent disciplinary research, is exciting, innovative and of very high quality. Both are important.”

Like any practice that disrupts tradition, interdisciplinary research will likely face criticism for years to come. But the approach is irrefutably crucial for the advancement of knowledge and, ergo, is here to stay.

“We can’t work in a vacuum anymore,” says former CIR fellow Michael Goran, a professor of preventive medicine, physiology and biophysics in the Keck School of Medicine. “The issues that we’re trying to figure out are complex and usually cut across disciplinary boundaries.”

Goran’s CIR project focused on the origins of obesity and its relationship to increased risk of diabetes in Latino boys. Collaborating with fellow physicians, exercise scientists and physicists, his work resulted in a new independently funded exercise program for young boys in East Los Angeles.

Vision scientist Grzywacz agrees. “As the problems we face in research become more difficult, the necessity of interdisciplinary research will become more acute,” he predicts.

Of course, “interdisciplinary research isn’t for everyone,” notes Sullivan, nor is his role that of missionary. “CIR is not an evangelistic group. We’re not trying to convert anyone to do interdisciplinary research,” he says.

“This whole effort is to facilitate, enable and encourage those people who’ve decided they want to do this kind of research. We want to lower the barriers – the financial constraints, tenure and promotion issues, the way we’re managed or organized into schools or departments. That’s what this is about. It’s not evangelism.”

The group has begun to thrash out some of the thorny issues surrounding a tenure system that doesn’t reward extra-departmental endeavor. At one of the last meetings of the 2003-04 CIR group, Michael Arbib, the scientist studying the evolution of brain mechanisms for language, asked his colleagues to imagine a hypothetical university in which departments are abolished. Professors would be grouped alphabetically, by last name. Recruitment could then be a search for the best scholar, regardless of discipline, whose surname begins with R.

Scary thought! But couldn’t the academic boundaries we know melt away someday?

Sullivan doesn’t think so.

“The disciplines have taken care of themselves over the decades and centuries,” he says. Scholarly niches may change over time: new ones get added, old ones get swept away. (Remember engineering specialties in transistors and cathode tubes?) But disciplines remain the bedrock of the university model.

Arbib’s thought experiment, though clearly a reductio, challenges the status quo regarding how we select, organize and promote faculty. Uncomfortable questions, these. But important ones, and ones that will influence where future mega-grants and Nobel Prizes go.

“Because,” says Sullivan, “this is where important discoveries will be made and solutions to society’s most pressing problems will be found.”