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The Interdisciplinary Language Barrier


The bounds of traditional academic subjects have been moved, crisscrossed, and overturned as researchers think about their research problems in new ways. Giselle Knudsen trained as an enzymologist, but now she is learning how research has changed. "Enzymologists are becoming proteomics experts and they are interested in classical pharmacology, but they don't call it that anymore. They are making up all these new words," says Knudsen, a postdoc at Purdue University.

Knudsen herself is developing a new detection method for proteins that can be applied to drug design and discovery. "To make this kind of stuff work, you have to work on a team. I work with chemists and biologists and spectroscopists and engineers and you have to speak a different language with each of them. You have to be able to explain what it is that you do to people who don't actually talk about molds or H-bonds in protein chemistry," she says.

While helpful to her work, Knudsen's interdisciplinary approach affects her job prospects as her postdoc draws to an end. "It's risky being translational like this because I don't fit in the mold of any of the classical sciences," she says. "I'm not a classical chemist. I'm not a classical biologist, or an engineer for that matter. I pull all of these methods from many different fields."

"I'm looking for a faculty position, for example, and which field do I apply to?" Knudsen asks. She does note that there seems to be a growing market for people like her.

"I'm recognizing my skill set and I'm just looking for people to take a chance," she says. "The thing that's most frustrating is that everybody claims that they want to do this, but the pillars of science are very slow to actually adopt these new ideas."

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