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"Complex Problems Don't Respect Disciplinary Boundaries"

Collaborative efforts and interdisciplinary studies are common themes in higher education today. At Dartmouth, they're more than themes—they're a way of life. Noting that Dartmouth's intimate size and scale foster close faculty-student interaction and encourage creative collaboration, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Biological Sciences Carol Folt says, "This has a positive effect on our ability to solve problems and questions using crossdisciplinary approaches. Complex problems don't respect disciplinary boundaries."

Focus on Faculty asked several Dartmouth professors to describe how crossing those boundaries supports their teaching and research.

Ursula Gibson
From left: Ursula Gibson '76, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Sara Campbell, graduate student in chemistry, and Joseph BelBruno, professor of chemistry, examine the morphology of films imprinted for the detection of nitro-molecules.

Tiny but powerful
In the nano world chemistry, biology, and physics overlap. Ursula Gibson '76, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Professor of Chemistry Joseph BelBruno both say that the days of treading lightly in another's field of research are over. A chemist, for example, is now encouraged to collaborate and cooperate with physicists, engineers, or mathematicians to tackle complex problems.

Says BelBruno, "In one project, Ursula Gibson and I are working on the development of small sensors, which involves a chemical issue—the production of chemical materials to detect certain molecules—and an engineering issue—how to report the presence of the detected molecule and make the sensor part of a distributed network."

Gibson adds, "Dartmouth's size lends itself to interdisciplinary work, and there is increasing recognition of the important role these kinds of projects play in providing opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research."

Politics are personal
Associate Professor of Government Lisa Baldez is a political scientist who would like to help develop public policy that addresses HIV/AIDS among married women in Latin American countries. She says that this problem needs input from those who understand the relationships of these women, something that anthropologists are better equipped than political scientists to study.

Lisa Baldez
Lisa Baldez

"I gained insight from my colleagues in the anthropology department," says Baldez, who is also interested in how women are represented in politics. "In Latin America, the percentage of women elected to legislative office has risen dramatically in recent years and higher percentages of conservative women in office have started to change the way in which women's issues are defined."

Talking with faculty from Spanish and Portuguese, she learned that the same dynamics are evident in women's literature, suggesting a broader pattern of change. "These kinds of insights make me so grateful to be part of an interdisciplinary program like Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies (LALACS)," says Baldez.

LALACS offers courses with the Departments of Spanish and Portuguese, French and Italian, History, Anthropology, Sociology, Environmental Studies, and Government.

Joining forces
For more than 10 years, an undergraduate course called Assisted Reproduction in the 21st Century has drawn on the expertise of a biologist, a psychologist, and a moral philosopher.

Judith Stern, Cathy Cramer, Ronald Green
From left: Judith Stern, Cathy Cramer, and Ronald Green are blending psychology, ethics, and reproductive biology to teach a class on assisted reproductive technologies.

"We think of our course as metadisciplinary-the topic requires an understanding, critical appreciation, and application of more than one discipline," says Ronald Green, the Eunice and Julian Cohen Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values and the director of the Dartmouth Ethics Institute.

Green works with Judith Stern, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Dartmouth Medical School, and Catherine Cramer, associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, to teach the course, which examines a host of subjects from in vitro fertilization to cloning. By looking at the issues from multiple perspectives, faculty and students gain new insights. It puts the topics into context, and because they're timely and presented in a multifaceted way, the course is popular with students.

"At a time when we're trying to introduce ethics into various parts of the curriculum, this course serves as a model for how faculty can work together to build a curriculum that embodies an interdisciplinary, or metadisciplinary, framework," says Green.

Adrian Randolph
Adrian Randolph (Photos by Joseph Mehling '69)

Renaissance man

According to art historian Adrian W. B. Randolph, the Leon E. Williams Professor of Art, an interdisciplinary attitude provides faculty and students with the space for reflection about the importance of differing points of reference. "At the core of the liberal arts education is a belief in pluralism: no one discipline blazes the singular path to truth," he says. "However, for a liberal arts education to be more than a sum of its parts, it is essential to reflect on the intersections, parallelisms, and differences between paths."

Randolph is involved in forming a new interdisciplinary concentration blending medieval and Renaissance studies.

"While maintaining the essential variety of the liberal arts experience, such initiatives grant students the flexibility to conceive and develop their curricular plans based on the inherent diversity and interconnectedness of intellectual experience," he says.


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Last Updated: 11/18/14