Promoting collisions between disciplines to foster new approaches to biomedical problems

Throughout the 2009-2010 academic year a large number of us at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are engaging in some conversations via a Promoting Collisions dinner series.  The dinner series is primarily sponsored by the people behind the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery complex; a large new public-private structure that is emerging from the (now) frozen ground in Madison, WI.  As noted on the Wisconsin Institutes‘ website:

The institutes will build on the long tradition of interdisciplinary research at UW–Madison. Today’s problems relating to human health and welfare are more complex than one individual, one department or one institution can solve. The twin research institutes will encourage the kind of cross-pollination needed to attack these problems and the building’s Town Center will serve as a vibrant crossroads for researchers to meet, hold joint conferences and participate in collaborative events that will extend the research of the efforts at the institutes beyond the facility itself. One of the project’s key objectives is to foster new approaches to biomedical problems at the convergence of various disciplines, including the arts, business, education, humanities, law, social sciences  and more.

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is also involved in sponsoring a variety of other initiatives (e.g., the symposium advertised in the poster above) on our campus prior to the opening of the building in fall of 2010.

Today’s entry is a photo-oriented one; images taken during a stroll around the building a few days ago in the -19 C weather (when my hands nearly froze).  I wonder if interdisciplinary conversations and disciplinary ‘collisions’ are enabled or constrained by cold weather?  If they are constrained, what hope does the University of Alberta have seeing that it is -45 C in Edmonton today!

More seriously, the Promoting Collisions conversations are fascinating. It is also very interesting to see the shape, in terms of design and programming, that this new ‘knowledge space’ is being formed into to facilitate hoped for breakthroughs at the intersection of disciplines like computer science or mathematics and biology.

Debates about the value and effects of ‘interdisciplinarity’ are sure to continue, as exemplified by Jerry A. Jacob’s recent piece (‘Interdisciplinary hype‘) in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet such debates are likely to be grounded in new forms of empirical reality when complexes like the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery are completed, and strategically designed on-site ‘collisions’ begin to occur, leaving a mark of one form or another.

Kris Olds

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