Cover Story

Mix it up

Are you a psychology student? Or do you consider yourself more of a budding social-cognitive neuroscientist?

That's not just a matter of semantics. Psychology's "hybrid fields" — those areas of two or three intersecting disciplines, such as neurolaw, psychoneuroimmunology and social affective neuroscience — are growing in influence, attracting big grants and competing for top students.

Scientists in these areas are examining such timely topics as how technology can improve quality of life for aging adults, the effects of stress on immune and endocrine function, and how brain-scanning technology may provide insights into criminal behavior.

The increasing focus on cross-disciplinary research should come as no surprise to most students. A search for the term "neuroeconomics" in APA's PsycINFO brings up nearly three times as many results from today as it did 10 years ago.

These emerging disciplines are also where many funding agencies are investing resources. In 2007, for example, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced a three-year, $10 million grant to fund postdoctoral research fellowships and collaborative meetings integrating law and neuroscience. Since 1998, the National Science Foundation's flagship interdisciplinary training program, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), has funded nearly 5,000 graduate students through 260 grant awards to 110 universities. The IGERT programs offer students interdisciplinary training along with $30,000 a year in stipends, tuition and fees for five years of a doctoral program in the sciences.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jerry Jacobs, PhD, who studies interdisciplinary trends, says the growth in hybrid fields may stem from technological advancements, such as fMRI, which bring many fields together. But perhaps more important, he says, the surge in interdisciplinary training reflects a shift away from traditional scientific boundaries and toward the grouping of departments, programs and even degrees around specific topics or problems.

In 2007, for example, the University of Michigan announced an investment of $30 million toward hiring 100 new tenure-track, interdisciplinary faculty members. In addition, a study co-authored by Jacobs indicates that interdisciplinary research centers are an increasingly common feature of U.S. higher education, often examining such applied topics as the problems of an aging society or the challenges of bioethics. The survey found nearly 10,000 research centers at colleges and universities in the United States in 2007 (Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 35, No. 1).

"Our fields can't exist in silos in the way they once did," says Jay McClelland, PhD, chair of psychology and founding director of the Center for Mind, Brain and Computation at Stanford University.

Many scientists agree that innovations often emerge when traditional fields collide. But some express concern that this trend may weaken the psychology field and turn out students without broad backgrounds in human behavior.

"The benefit is that you get training and expertise in this hybrid area," says Steven Breckler, PhD, APA's executive director for science. "But I would also wonder whether you're bringing everything to the table that each of these disciplines have to offer."

Cutting-edge science

Many graduate students and early career psychologists who specialize in hybrid fields say their interdisciplinary work is allowing them to better tailor their future careers to their interests. As an undergraduate, for example, Kelly Caine, PhD, dreamed of a career as a therapist. She took courses to prepare for a clinical graduate program, made lists of programs to apply to and volunteered at a state mental hospital. But after she saw firsthand the long hours and personal sacrifices many clinical psychologists faced, she decided against that career path. Her internship, plus a course in human factors research, helped Caine realize that the hybrid field of engineering psychology was the place for her.

"As an engineering psychologist, I would get to contribute to our knowledge about how to design technology so it was accessible to all, useful and easy to use," says Caine, now a principal research scientist at the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University.

Throughout her PhD program in engineering psychology at Georgia Tech, Caine studied the fundamentals of psychology — cognition, sensation and perception, research methods, statistics — as well as topics in human factors and human-computer interaction. She also worked with an interdisciplinary research group to examine human-centered computing, and she interned at Google, where she explored ways to improve the user experience. During her job search and interview process last year, Caine says, she received a lot of interest from potential employers about her interdisciplinary background and the strong research methods and statistics training she received in her psychology program.

"They thought that I would be a benefit to their department because of the different perspective I brought," she says.

Ohio State University clinical psychology student Liisa Hantsoo has had similar success integrating her interests in psychology with a different cutting-edge field: genetics. After completing an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, Hantsoo won a slot as a psychology graduate student at Ohio State's Stress and Health lab under psychoneuroimmunologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD. While training with a traditional clinical psychology department behind her, Hantsoo's dissertation is taking her back into the "wet lab," where she's looking at gene-environment interactions between the FADS2 gene — which codes for an enzyme that modulates fatty acid processing in the body — and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid intake, to examine their effect on depressive symptoms, neuroticism and hostility. She says she tends to go to more specialized meetings — such as those of the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society — but she still introduces herself as a psychology student. She plans to pursue a career that combines both her interests in clinical psychology and biology.

"The field is really moving in that direction, so I'm hopeful there will be jobs that address both sides of the coin," she says.

University of Utah psychology graduate student Margaret Tarampi is also optimistic that she will be able to find a job that integrates her two passions: cognitive psychology and architecture. After completing an undergraduate degree in architecture, Tarampi worked as a research associate with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, pursuing work in what some have termed "neuro-architecture," a field that examines how architecture and building design affect the human experience. After three years in neuroscience labs, Tarampi decided to pursue a PhD in psychology to gain the credentials as both an architect and cognitive neuroscientist. She's now part of a multidisciplinary project funded by the National Eye Institute, working to develop a computer-based tool that will help architects design safer public spaces for people with impaired vision.

The diverse education and experiences that Tarampi and others are gaining can lead to the cross-fertilization of theories, models, tools and approaches, many of which can enrich a science, says Amber Story, PhD, a social psychologist and deputy division director of the Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences at the National Science Foundation. "This may be where the truly cutting-edge ideas come from."

Interdisciplinary training may also give students an advantage in the job market, says Kevin Oschner, PhD, a Columbia University psychology professor who takes a social-cognitive neuroscience approach to understanding the psychological and neural processes involved in emotion, pain and self-perception. "A lot of job postings these days are specifically seeking people with hybrid backgrounds that have multiple kinds of influences informing their research," Oschner says.

University of Pennsylvania psychology graduate student Andrea Glenn agrees that being part of a growing hybrid field is likely to widen her job possibilities. She is studying the neurobiological bases of criminal behavior, particularly psychopathic personality development, and says her research crosses over into several fields.

"I would feel comfortable taking a job in psychology, neuroscience, criminology or some kind of hybrid program," Glenn says.

The cross-departmental blues

While hybrid fields often offer students the opportunity to do cutting-edge science, they can also leave them feeling isolated. Despite her excitement about her research and optimism for the future, for example, Glenn says that at times she feels like she's "out on my own island, and that researchers in other disciplines don't quite have a good grasp on what I'm doing."

Caine also admits that during her job search last year, she didn't receive interviews for any of the psychology positions for which she applied — only from disciplines outside psychology, such as engineering systems and computer science, which is where she eventually ended up. "I imagine it's quite likely that some of those schools rejected me because I was not a 'traditional' psychologist," she says. In fact, a few computer scientists had expressed concern about how her background would allow her to contribute to their research, she says.

Others are concerned that students in hybrid areas may be trading off a deep understanding of human behavior for more specialized knowledge — and at least one study backs up that concern. The research, published in the multidisciplinary journal Thesis Eleven (Vol. 96, No. 1), compared four groups of graduate students — two junior, two senior — participating in NSF's interdisciplinary graduate student traineeship, the IGERT program, with four groups of similar students who had traditional disciplinary training. The groups had 21/2 days to develop brief proposals and a 20-minute presentation charting the next generation of research on human-ecosystem sustainability. Contrary to the researchers' expectations, the junior IGERT groups and the senior disciplinary groups produced proposals that scored highest in terms of originality and interdisciplinary character. The senior IGERT groups — those with more advanced interdisciplinary training — ranked in the bottom half on both measures. These groups, researchers say, seemed to lack both the interdisciplinary disposition to imagine an integrative product and the disciplinary skills to construct one.

While in no way condemning the IGERT program, study co-author Diana Rhoten, PhD, director of the Knowledge Institutions program and the Digital Media and Learning project at the nonprofit Social Science Research Council, says these findings suggest that perhaps the program should try a different approach.

"Instead of asking students to inculcate and ally themselves to multiple domains, it might be better for them to deeply engage in one area of disciplinary expertise while participating in intermittent periods of interdisciplinary exposure," she said.

It seems, then, that a focus on hybrid training programs may be shortchanging future innovation by getting students too involved in interdisciplinary collaboration too early. To avoid this, Breckler says, those pursuing hybrid training should try to get a broad grounding in psychology, taking classes in all of the field's core disciplines while also getting a solid basis in the other disciplines. He also emphasizes the importance of establishing a disciplinary home — preferably in psychology — to ensure that the field's identity and core scientific value remains strong in the midst of continuing interdisciplinary work.

"We can't bring disciplines together, or even transcend them, if they cease to exist as distinct and separate entities," Breckler says.

It's also a good idea to find mentors and dissertation committee members who specialize in each discipline, McClelland says.

The bottom line, it seems, is that hybrid fields are here to stay, and if students commit to getting the best training they can in psychology, while remaining open to theories, methods and ideas from other disciplines, the possibilities are endless.

"If you think back in history to some of the greatest scientists and thinkers, people like Louis Pasteur and Michelangelo, they tended to be pretty eclectic in their backgrounds and areas of knowledge," Breckler says. "The next great breakthroughs in science may come out of these hybrid areas that require a different kind of scientist."

Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.