A Perspective on Indian Interdisciplinary Research

The great scientific endeavor is all about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and underpinnings of nature. As our knowledge grew, we started realizing that techniques from one scientific field are often necessary to understand certain aspects of another field. The knowledge of optics, for example, allowed us to build better microscopes that helped understand biology better, or the knowledge of statistical physics allowed us to understand thermodynamics of chemical reactions better. In today’s cutting-edge research, the boundaries between different fields are getting blurred. A theoretical physics lab could be working on chromatin topology in cell nuclei, or a computer science group could be working on protein folding mechanisms (AlphaFold being a prime example making headlines these days1). From a science policy perspective, it is important to understand and nurture this highly interdisciplinary nature of current science. In this article, we will look at some initiatives undertaken in recent years to promote interdisciplinary basic science research in India and propose recommendations for the future. A special focus will be on biophysics, as it is the bridging science between qualitative biology and quantitative sciences of physics, math and chemistry.

India has a long history of interdisciplinary biophysics research, going all the way back to Sir Jagdish Chandra Bose. He founded the Bose institute in 1917 at Kolkata, which is Asia’s first interdisciplinary research center2. Interdisciplinary research in India has grown over the years. Having dedicated infrastructure and facilities promotes collaborative efforts. In this regard, a few institutions in India have well-established biophysics departments/programs, such as Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc.) (Bangalore), University of Calcutta, Bose Institute (Kolkata) and All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) (New Delhi) to name a few. However, as the size of Indian academia grows, there is a greater need for such institutional hubs to drive cutting-edge research. Several new initiatives in India look promising in this regard and are discussed in brief below.

The TIFR Center for Interdisciplinary Sciences (TCIS) (Hyderabad) was founded in recognition of this need for growing interdisciplinary research. It employs faculty from various branches of science and engineering. It has a unique department-less structure to allow the researchers to understand, engage in and contribute to each other’s work. TCIS was founded in 2010 in Hyderabad. It currently has 29 faculty and aims to have as many as 250 faculty from various disciplines working in different theme-driven centers in the near future3. Research in TCIS spans over diverse areas, including fluorescence spectroscopy, NMR spectroscopy, cell and molecular biology, soft matter and many more. Dr. Kanchan Garai, a researcher at TCIS, says, “my research, which is related to Alzheimer’s disease, requires a multidisciplinary approach. TCIS recruits students from all major disciplines of science. More than one PI can co-guide a graduate student. For example, currently we are testing some of our ideas, which originated in my lab from biophysics experiments in drosophila fly models with the help of a student who is co-guided by a biologist colleague and me.” He further adds, “I collaborate very closely with colleagues working on theoretical physics. The use of single molecule techniques to study protein aggregation generates a lot of data. Hence, there is a need for developing new methods for analyzing and interpreting the experimental data. Although I collaborate with scientists abroad, in-house collaborations are quite helpful since I can just barge into my colleague’s office and discuss any matter that could be bothering me.”

The Simons Center for the Study of Living Machines at National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) (Bangalore) is another great initiative aimed to drive collaborative research across disciplines. Supported by NCBS and Simons foundation, its goal is to bring together techniques from computer science, mathematics and physics towards solving complex biological problems4. Close collaborations of the faculty with experimental labs at NCBS allow for a seamless interaction between mathematical theories and experimental biology.

Other than the national institutes, growing biophysics and biotechnology departments at various state universities also play a key role in fostering interdisciplinary research. University of Mumbai for example, established their biophysics department in 2001 which has grown rapidly since then. Its first PhD degree was awarded in 2014, and currently has 11 research investigators associated with it working on diverse research projects5. Some of the ongoing research projects include targeted drug delivery using albumin-nanoparticle-glycan conjugates, in-vitro nano-particle identification for snake venom activity inhibition, and many more.

There are also several workshops organized throughout India to help promote specific interdisciplinary research areas. One notable mention is the FCS workshop, which is a national workshop for fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy6. It happens every year at different venues all over India and is co-organized by TIFR (Mumbai) and the Fluorescence Society of India. It provides hand-on training of emerging fluorescence and Raman spectroscopy techniques. Super-resolution imaging and optical tweezers have also been included in recent FCS workshops. It provides a great opportunity for Indian faculty and students to learn these new techniques from experts in India and abroad.

Education is an important aspect for facilitating interdisciplinary research, as it is responsible for providing graduate students with the right skillset. Conventional undergraduate education system thoroughly trains students in a specific discipline, inadvertently creating silos. Although it is important to maintain the rigor of the individual discipline, exposure to other fields is necessary for the students who wish to pursue interdisciplinary research. One way to achieve this is through a major/minor system, as is available in various Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes for Science Education and Research (IISERs) With the development of strong life sciences, biotechnology and biomedical engineering departments at these IITs, a student with a major in engineering physics, for example, can take biology as a minor. This can be implemented across all undergraduate STEM degree courses. IISER Pune even gives an option of not choosing any specific major, instead freely selecting any courses till a certain number of course credits are completed7. Another hurdle for students pursuing interdisciplinary research is that various PhD entrance exams are subject specific, which needs to be remedied.

The initiatives highlighted in this article, and several others, will have a significant contribution towards the growth of Indian research output. There is more to be done, however. Initiation and expansion of interdisciplinary science programs across all institutes will help make interdisciplinary research mainstream. Even if physical infrastructure is not possible, the existing departments can be motivated to collaborate through specific funding programs. A good example can be found in the United States, where the National Science Foundation (NSF) funds Physics Frontier Centers8. Faculty across different departments in a university can be affiliated to the center and are encouraged to collaborate on projects with specific themes. Three such centers located at Princeton, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rice university are dedicated for biophysics research, where faculty from physics, chemistry, life sciences, mathematics, computer science, chemical engineering, etc. can work together towards solving biological problems. A trans-institutional network of researchers and graduate students called “Physics of Living Systems (PoLS) Student Research Network (SRN)” is also established to facilitate communication and exchange of ideas between peers working in the same field9. A similar model can be implemented in India. NSF also has multiple funding programs for interdisciplinary research, collectively known as solicited interdisciplinary programs10. In addition, there is also a provision to independently invite research proposals that are not targeted by any program solicitation, called unsolicited interdisciplinary proposals. A similar funding model in India will greatly help incentivize unconventional interdisciplinary research.

In conclusion, modern research is highly dynamic and interdisciplinary. It is important to adapt science policies and initiatives accordingly to facilitate necessary infrastructure, networking, and human resource development, which will help India on its way to become a scientific powerhouse.

Blog by

Rohit Vaidya
PhD Candidate
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Blogs, European Outreach at Sci-ROI


Edited by

Ananya Mukherjee
Postdoctoral Researcher | University Of Nebraska, Lincoln
Kanika Khanna
Postdoctoral Researcher | Stanford University

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