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Symbiosis in Science: Interdisciplinary Research at the Forefront of Medicine

Many Americans have heard of the term “interdisciplinary research” but don’t really understand how that affects them on a daily basis. Interdisciplinary research crosses traditional professional boundaries. Within science, it incorporates researchers from departments as different as physics, psychology, and biology. True interdisciplinary research also entails collaboration between larger fields that link researchers from the sciences, humanities, economists, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

More than 28% of biomedical research in the U.S. is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). While you may not be familiar with the NIH, you have most certainly benefited from their research. The NIH funds most of the research done at hospitals and universities around the country, affecting many aspects of science, medicine, and the economy.

The NIH has a different perspective than the for-profit companies that perform biomedical research. In contrast to private industry, the NIH has long-term goals that allow it to support many facets of scientific research. Funding from the NIH pays for the training of young scientists, the development of medical technologies, and it is also interested in understanding basic science, such as the fundamental biology of human beings.

The basic science funded by the NIH often has no immediate clinical applications but, with time, it speeds medical advances. Just one example of basic science translating into medicine occurred in the cancer field. The first breast cancer genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, were first identified with no immediate medical use. Twenty years later, the knowledge of these mutations allows women to monitor and prevent breast and ovarian cancer (more on this later). Interdisciplinary research, including genetics, surgery, and ethics were all involved in this advance.

The NIH recognizes the value of interdisciplinary research and encourages it through the grants that they fund. The Oncofertility Consortium is funded on one such grant, called a Roadmap Grant, that funds research to solve persistent medical problems through interdisciplinary research that could not be solved within any single field along. With this funding, scientists, historians, lawyers, and medical professionals are working to prevent fertility loss due to cancer treatment, implement that treatment to patients, and examine the financial and ethical aspects of such treatments.

As the economy is still in the forefront of many minds, it is important to note that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act didn’t just put people to work building roads and bridges. Many scientists were employed through this act, as depicted in this variation of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act sign (above).  With the help of the NIH, interdisciplinary research is building a strong infrastructure for America. That is a population of healthy and well-informed citizens, scientists, and medical professionals.

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