On the Origin of Scientists: Multidisciplinary is more than a buzzword for Babak Pourbohloul

The scientific community often operates under the assumption that it is destined to succeed simply because it is committed in principle to noble aims. But noble aims mean nothing if scientists do not perform the actions to support them.

Take, for example, one of the great aims of science — for different sorts of scientists to talk to each other. This popular idea has many associated buzzwords (multi-, inter-, cross- disciplinary and integrated science).

“If you walk across the campus and ask 100 people, ‘Do you believe in multidisciplinary work?’ everybody would say yes,” said UBC professor Dr. Babak Pourbohloul. At the same time, most individuals expect others to do the legwork. “People think, ‘this is my comfort zone. I’m happy, so others should come to me and benefit from my skills.’

“Getting out of your comfort zone is a behavioural issue. The old — or traditional — [education] system ignores that behavioural characteristic,” said Pourbohloul.

Pourbohloul — also the director of the Complexity Science Lab and director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre in Complexity Science for Health Systems — finds that leaving comfort zones is a prerequisite in his multidisciplinary work. He analyzes complex problems, like the spread of SARS in 2003 and H1N1 influenza in 2009, and communicates policy measures to leaders around the world.

The only way to work through the nitty-gritty of how contagions spread, and find answers that improve people’s lives, is to bring together brilliant minds all around the world.

“There is no single individual who could take credit. If you really want to understand the problem, you need to take into account all tools and techniques that different disciplines provide. So for me, the barrier — the siloed nature of different disciplines — really disappeared 20 years ago,” said Pourbohloul.

In the mid 90s, Pourbohloul came to Canada as a political refugee. The Canadian system welcomed him with open arms. His academic and career trajectory remain heavily shaped by this experience.

He first sought to understand complex systems. How do social changes take place across a community, a population or in a nation? In physics, he found the most compelling methods for understanding the complexity of systems. He wrote his thesis on how to control chaotic systems like the “butterfly-effect” at the atomic level.

Later, when choosing a career after graduate school, Pourbohloul wanted to give back to the Canadian community that had been so kind to him. He had three simultaneous job offers — one was working in the lucrative field of fusion energy production, another was at a financial institution in New York and the third one was at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). Pourbohloul ultimately chose the BCCDC.

“A lot of colleagues, even some of my Canadian colleagues, encouraged me to basically take the individual side. To make money. But in the end, I really couldn’t convince myself to do anything but work in a Canadian city, in the public health sector,” said Pourbohloul.

Bridging science and policy continues to be Pourbohloul’s goal for the years to come.

Scientists — young and old alike — have to learn from Pourbohloul’s insights if they want to unite different silos of knowledge. Worryingly, uniting the scientific community is not a priority for many. Access to social media tends to make us feel globally connected, but with collaborator and PhD candidate Krista English, Pourbohloul found that human knowledge is still very disconnected. For example, researchers in health policy and systems research are unlikely to co-author a study with someone outside their own field (unpublished).

People tend to think that if someone around them does not know the answer, the solution has not been created. In fact, someone in a different field could have already developed the necessary tools that only need minor tweaking to be used for one’s own problem.

“Instead of spreading your knowledge, see to what extent you can integrate different knowledge. That is really the key to success in the 21st century,” said Pourbohloul.

Scientists are increasingly committing to changing behaviours towards a more multidisciplinary approach to science. Comfort zones can be hard to abandon. Multidisciplinary work can be hard to aim for. In such cases, young researchers can find models for more inclusive actions in established scientists like Pourbohloul.