Hanna McPhee is Brown senior, completing an independent concentration in “Biologically Inspired Design.” Her thesis explores the scientific process alongside design methods with the goal of finding a more holistic approach to problem solving for interdisciplinary collaborations. 

I am sitting across the table from my thesis advisor. We stare at one another in silence, our faces reflecting equal levels of frustration. After a 15-minute debate on the differences between a parameter and a constraint, it has become painfully clear that my advisor is an engineer, and I am not. We meet weekly to discuss my research. And each time, we hit a wall—using the same words, but interpreting them in entirely different ways. With a background in biology and design, my definitions of details do not often align with an engineer’s. But my advisor and I both know the objectives of my thesis, and we both want to work toward that goal.

So, why are we struggling to connect?

It starts with the realization that our disciplines do not speak the same language. Up until the past few years, my education was geared toward finding a path and, for the most part, sticking to it. If a student is good at math, he stays on the honors track through middle and high school and becomes a “math person.” I felt swayed to identify as a “biology person,” even as I embarked on my college-level liberal arts education. There was never room for another subject like art. No space for speaking two languages fluently. The educational system created silos between the different disciplines. Once I chose one path, essentially my language, other subjects became foreign.

Connections are missing across disciplines, and in particular between the arts and sciences. In almost every project I have worked on thus far, my analytical and creative teammates have struggled to connect. From deadlines to critical thinking, collaborating has been as difficult as it is for a native English speaker to interpret Italian. Sure, perhaps some root words are similar. But we end up just speaking loudly at one another, waving our hands around as a flailing attempt at communication.

Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to create my own concentration in college and fully integrate biology and design into one cohesive means of critical thinking. But it would be extremely naïve to think this type of interdisciplinary education can be implemented everywhere—and nor should it be. We still need the classically trained “quant jocks” and the “edgy creatives.” Without them, a melting pot of full-fledged hybrids such as myself would lose any sort of concrete base for reference.

So where do we go from here?

I believe each individual, no matter how much of a purist he or she may be in his or her respective field, should be responsible for entertaining interdisciplinary ideas. Exposing ourselves to different disciplines results in a better understanding of our peers’ work. With this deeper understanding, we create a greater means of respect. Whether that takes the form of double majoring while in college, or simply taking a few electives, some threshold of interdisciplinary thought is important.

In an era where buzzwords like “collaboration” and “innovation” land you a job, it’s time to actually start flexing both sides of our brains. At the end of this journey, behind their various languages, my analytical and creative peers are surprisingly similar. My STEM friends always shudder at the free-flowing process of iterating and prototyping. My design friends laugh at the time spent nitpicking over numerical data, information that seems far removed from the problem at hand. But what they don’t realize is that they’re following almost identical steps toward finding solutions. And here’s the proof:

Design vs Science process (1)

Though one approach may rely more on quantifiable data and the other on a more “human” means of communication, step by step, the two share striking similarities. Combining these two theories helps me personally make sense of my own analytical and creative brain. Combining those understandings into one critical thinking tool, I gain a deeper understanding of defining problems and finding solutions.

In short, the banter my advisor and I share is not about the difference between parameters and constraints—it’s not really even about my thesis project. It’s about exposure to new languages.


A previous version of this post was originally published on Creative Scholar Deb Mills-Scofield’s blog. It was edited and republished here with her permission, as well as the permission of the writer.