BAR HARBOR — When University of Maine marine science student Isaiah Mansour signed up for a course at the MDI Biological Laboratory last spring, he knew the material would be a bit outside his comfort zone.
“The course was about the molecular pathways of human disease – every single one of those words is outside of my wheelhouse,” he said. “I decided to sign up anyway because I wanted the exposure to deep biochemistry and a different side of science.”
Mansour was a bit surprised to see more connections than he expected – both to his marine science work and to ideas about the business he hopes to start. He returned to the lab for a summer fellowship in Aric Rogers’ research lab. Mansour and another undergraduate summer fellow were on campus for the groundbreaking of the institution’s new Maine Center for Biomedical Innovation (MCBI), and they started talking with Education Director Jane Disney about the other fields they’ll need to learn about as they launch their careers.
“I started to think about how I need to learn a whole other set of skills from the business world, communication and the people science world,” Mansour said. “I realized, wow, I have a lot more to study than fish and snails.”
The resulting course, Bridging Disciplines: Navigating 21st Century Careers in Biomedical Science, met last week in the new MCBI. Participants were students from Orono and the College of the Atlantic studying biology, chemistry and engineering.
The program included a full day on communication, internal to a collaborative project and also external, translating to the general public. They considered case studies of research projects that sank or swam on the merits of communication strategies.
“I have been interested in how science gets communicated to different audiences,” COA student Kaitlyn Clark said, “and even communication within different fields of science, there ends up being this very siloed effect. The course seemed like a great opportunity to explore things I was already thinking about and a chance to meet a bunch of other Maine science students.”
The students were introduced to work in the labs of several MDI Biological Laboratory researchers. The faculty shared current issues in their work that could benefit from an interdisciplinary approach, such as the peripheral neuropathy that may result from some kinds of chemotherapy treatment.
“The students’ task was to lay out an approach for addressing these complicated problems,” Disney said. “I think we’re in an age where working in isolation, working in just your field, isn’t working any more. Things have gotten too complicated.”
Clark said there was a lot of energy in the group’s discussions as students in different disciplines brought their knowledge to bear.
“There’s a misperception that if you can do it all yourself, that’s better. There’s one mechanical engineering student, so he starts thinking of technologies he knows are available and ways to modify those technologies,” she said, “whereas I’m more of a systems thinker. This has been the most positive group experience I’ve ever had.”
“I think it’s great that we were such a diverse group. I really enjoyed the discussions,” said fellow COA student Mamiko Yamazaki, who is working in Sandra Rieger’s lab this year. “As I get into research and as I learn about this field, I begin to believe that it’s really important to know the different disciplines and to understand the background better.”
The group noticed that issues in biomedical research and medicine affect researchers, medical providers and patients, but those perspectives often don’t come together. At their final presentation Friday, President Kevin Strange said they had hit on something very important.
“The patient/provider/researcher bubbles are a really fundamental problem,” he said. “If you expose scientists to what patients and doctors are dealing with, it changes the way they look at the problem.”
The group also received feedback on their work from engineers, business leaders and public policy experts.