Science without borders: Becoming cross-disciplinary

14 June 2013

share this:

Those who move away from home, for long enough, know that you end up not belonging anywhere. The more you move the easier it becomes. Looking back, you realize that you’ve learned new languages and cultures; you know how to get around like a local. It’s worth the effort. Yet, at parties, you’re always the foreigner. You have stories of how things are done differently in other places, some of your insights are useful, most are shrugged off. Why should they do things differently, and who are you to tell them? The fact is, you can’t really understand the challenges they face, you’re not from there.

I’m from computer science, moved to robotics and now live in bio-engineering. My home is a mix of processors, sensors, actuators, cells and nanoparticles. Science has no official border, yet I’ve had to learn a new language and culture for each discipline. Grants are the visas you need to explore new places. Grants are nearly never given to outsiders, only to the locals, the experts with preliminary data. Luckily, some organizations like HFSP, give wild cards to people like me, regardless of their origin.

Integration takes years — longer than a postdoc — and you risk losing your identity in the process.

Like a newcomer eager to fit in and unaware of the challenges, I started my integration, attending all the seminars and resurfacing lost skills with Khan Academy. A computer scientist could become a roboticist and a roboticist could be a bio-engineer, why not? We are all researchers after all. Then I realized that integration takes years — longer than a postdoc — and you risk losing your identity in the process. At parties, when people asked what I did, I would go into a tirade about computers, flying robots and nanoparticles to cure cancer. Oh that’s interesting, like being quarter Japanese, Italian, Irish and Egyptian.

A brilliant professor then told me, “You need to be an expert in something. That is your identity.” I am a swarm engineer. I like to discover new ways in which large numbers of simple agents can work together to perform complex tasks. I use computer tools like crowdsourcing and machine learning to discover swarm strategies and apply them to real world systems such as robotics and nanomedicine. I’ve gone from trying to integrate into new fields to integrating fields.

You need to be an expert in something. That is your identity.

There are no travel guides in cross-disciplinary science, it’s all unblazed trails. That is part of the excitement, bridges need to be built, and you’re the first one on the other side of the river. If you want to learn a new field, you need to go there and understand the language and culture. You won’t understand what is challenging until you try, and they won’t warn you because it is obvious. Since you are bi-lingual, you need to explain your work in their language, don’t expect them to know anything of your origin or the challenges you face. Find a nurturing and open-minded environment to welcome you (thank you Bhatia Lab!). Identify your expertise and use that as an anchor in everything you do (thank you Nagpal Lab!). Finally, don’t naturalize, fuse your backgrounds. At least, that is how I see things now.

This summer I’ll be at the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting, listening to 35 Nobel Laureates in chemistry. It looks like I’ll be learning a new language, maybe there is some swarm engineering to do there? I just hope that the person checking my passport at the next academic border (i.e. faculty search, grant office) will not look at the stamps, and wonder why I’ve been to so many different places.

Here is a great summary made by Ilana Schoenfeld that explains swarm engineering and presents some of my work.

tags: , , , , , ,

Sabine Hauert is President of Robohub and Associate Professor at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory
Sabine Hauert is President of Robohub and Associate Professor at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Related posts :




Robotics Grasping and Manipulation Competition Spotlight, with Yu Sun

Yu Sun, previous chair of the Robotics Grasping and Manipulation Competition, speaks on the value that this competition brought to the robotics community.
21 May 2022, by



Early Days of ICRA Competitions, with Bill Smart

Bill Smart, one fo the early ICRA Competition Chairs, dives into the high-level decisions involved with creating a meaningful competition.
21 May 2022, by

New imaging method makes tiny robots visible in the body

Microrobots have the potential to revolutionize medicine. Researchers at the Max Planck ETH Centre for Learning Systems have now developed an imaging technique that for the first time recognises cell-​sized microrobots individually and at high resolution in a living organism.
20 May 2022, by

A draft open standard for an Ethical Black Box

Within the RoboTIPS project, we have developed and tested several model of Ethical Black Boxes, including one for an e-puck robot, and another for the MIRO robot.
19 May 2022, by

Unable to attend #ICRA2022 for accessibility issues? Or just curious to see robots?

There are many things that can make it difficult to attend an in person conference in the United States and so the ICRA Organizing Committee, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society and OhmniLabs would like to help you attend ICRA virtually.
17 May 2022, by



Duckietown Competition Spotlight, with Dr Liam Paull

Dr. Liam Paull, cofounder of the Duckietown competition talks about the only robotics competition where Rubber Duckies are the passengers on an autonomous driving track.
17 May 2022, by

©2021 - ROBOTS Association


©2021 - ROBOTS Association