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UCSD symposium focuses on interdisciplinary research

Panelists listen to the presentations. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UCSD
Panelists listen to the presentations. Photo: Erik Jepsen/UCSD

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By Chris Palmer

Over the past 50 years, UCSD has developed several world-class academic departments. According to deans of three of those departments who spoke at Thursday’s Founder’s Symposium, the next 50 years will see the boundaries between individual departments dissolve as interdisciplinary collaborations become the engines of innovation in fields such as medicine, energy and information technology.

Three days of activities kicked off Thursday at the Medical Education and Telemedicine Learning Building with a symposium entitled “Flash Forward from 50: A Sneak Preview of UC San Diego’s New Directions in Research and Discovery.” During his introduction to the panel, symposium moderator Suresh Subramani, Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, highlighted recent collaborative efforts by UCSD faculty, including:

• Oceanographers working with biochemists to work on drug discovery,

• Researchers in medicine, the environment and international relations working to minimize the debilitating impact of coal-burning soot on the health of the populace of third-world nations, and

• A stem cell partnership that draws on experts from many fields from UCSD, Scripps Research Institute and the Salk Institute.

While praising these efforts, Subramani called for further implementation of interdisciplinary research, saying, “we must constantly reinvent ourselves to stay at the forefront.”

Subramani went on to state that the university will hire 130 faculty members within the next three years, and that new faculty with strong backgrounds in collaborative research will account for 30 percent of the appointments.

Dean Steve A. Kay of the Division of Biological Sciences, Dean Mark Thiemens of the Division of Physical Sciences, Dean Peter Cowhey of the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies and Associate Vice Chancellor of Research George Tynan provided details after Chancellor Marye Anne Fox’s opening remarks.

Kay talked of the need to move into the “sequencing era” of the 21st century by leading in three areas of biology: systems biology, where “genes are studied not one at a time but 100,000 at a time”; synthetic biology, where biological life is designed and built from the ground up; and quantitative biology, in which biology “transitions from a descriptive science to a predictive science with tools borrowed from mathematicians.”

Thiemens also looked to the future, describing the benefits of a convergence of physics, engineering and biology. One approach he touched on was applying what we know about quantum mechanics to the study of molecular structures.

Cowhey discussed the role of design in facilitating interdisciplinary efforts.

“We want to use a different perspective on design to look at problems in a new, unexpected way with a data intensive approach.” Cowhey cited a handful of UC San Diego studies of social issues that have benefitted from unintuitive initiatives driven by digging into available data such as a drop in early pregnancy resulting from paying families in Africa to keep girls in school and reducing election fraud by 50% by monitoring elections with mobile phones.

Tynan told the audience that “a profound revolution is needed” to meet the world’s energy demands, which will double in the next 50 years. He lauded the university’s innovations in the fields of sustainable liquid fuels, artificial photosynthesis and nuclear fusion.