Students reject topics they see as outside their own discipline, but researchers and educators are guilty of it too

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’We should be finding ways to encourage inclusive, not divisive, thinking’

Forget arts versus sciences. Discipline rivalry is alive and well within the sciences and even within chemistry itself, and it could be doing our students harm. We need to be aware that making divisions between disciplines influences our students’ thinking, often in unintended ways.

I first became aware of discipline competition when I was a final-year project student. All the reagent bottles on one bench in our research lab in the chemistry department were clearly marked ‘Biologists bugger off’. It transpired the postdoc responsible was not worried about marauding hordes from the biology department, but biological chemists from his own lab. He simply thought of the lab divided into synthetic chemists such as himself, whom he felt were ‘chemists’, and biological chemists, the ‘biologists’.

Of course, a certain amount of interdisciplinary banter is healthy and contributes towards a feeling of community within a community of practice, but it can cut too deep. Not all students will see such banter for what it is. At graduation, a fellow project student commented to me that ‘we’re more like biologists now’. I doubt a biology graduate would have agreed.

That’s not my subject

Since then I have seen plenty of siloed thinking about the scientific disciplines. It is seen in discussions of whether the Nobel prize for chemistry should be renamed the Nobel prize for biology due to the number of prizes awarded for biological chemistry. Why chemists should want to disclaim Nobel prize-winning science is beyond me. It is seen when academic chemistry staff discuss university research seminars (‘I’ll skip this week because it’s another biology / physics / materials / instrumentation talk’).

An open-minded approach should be adopted when talking to our students

I gave a talk on the topic of ‘extra-disciplinary thinking’ – the name I give to actively excluding topics from a discipline – at the Variety in Chemistry Education and Physics Higher Education Conference this summer. Afterwards, delegates shared stories of their own encounters with extra-disciplinary thinking. And, as illustrated above, this thinking filters down to our students.

Of course, it cuts both ways, and I have experienced the biology–chemistry divide from both sides. Following a class on enzyme-catalysed peptide hydrolysis for chemistry students – complete with curly arrow mechanisms, discussion of the thermodynamics and kinetics of each step, pKa values and a number of chemical factors that contribute to catalysis – some chemistry students told me they struggled with the material because they were ‘not good at biology’. Conversely, after giving a class to biology students, in which I showed the barest overview of how natural products are derived from core metabolic pathways, I was told by some students that the material was unsuitable because they ‘didn’t want to study chemistry’.

While my focus is on universities, this kind of thinking has its roots in schools. School departments have traditionally been insular in their teaching approach. The absurd pressures teachers experience to maximise results – often at the expense of pupils’ actual education – has exacerbated this. On top of this, each department tries to convince pupils that their subject is worthy of the most attention.

A less prescriptively subject-based curriculum in schools – as recommended by the Donaldson report in Wales – could be used to build links between the sciences. Negative recruitment strategies, which school and university departments are both guilty of when persuading pupils to choose their subject for A-level or for a degree, can also damage students’ perceptions of other disciplines and should be avoided.

Blurred boundaries

Any chemistry educator will tell you chemistry is the central science. Chemistry overlaps with subjects as diverse as physics, biology, biochemistry, engineering, medicine, astronomy, materials sciences, pharmacy and pharmacology, environmental and earth sciences, agriculture and food sciences, forensics and toxicology, and archaeology. Chemistry graduates find employment in areas such as law, business, publishing, sales and marketing, policymaking, finance and, of course, education.

Most chemists will encounter some degree of inter- or multi-disciplinarity in their career. Even if they remain firmly embedded in their discipline of study, chemistry graduates will typically be required to work – or at least communicate – with colleagues from a wide range of fields. We should be finding ways to encourage inclusive, not divisive, thinking.

We should be finding ways to encourage inclusive, not divisive, thinking

In real life, discipline boundaries are extremely blurred. This is what makes so much focus on discipline boundaries so laughable. I work closely with biologists and biochemists, even co-supervising research staff and students. University pharmacy departments are packed with people doing organic chemistry. Nanotechnology and surface science research is performed by chemists, physicists, materials engineers and others. It doesn’t really matter under which subject heading groundbreaking work is done; what matters is that such work is done.

We try hard to teach our students to be open-minded and non-prejudiced in other aspects of life. It is worth considering this when designing curricula – even just when naming modules. To many chemistry students, a module in ’biological chemistry’ suggests chemistry is core to the module but with inter-disciplinary application. Whereas ‘chemical biology’ suggests a topic outside their core interests.

More subtly, an open-minded approach should be adopted when talking to our students. By making our thinking inclusive rather than divisive, we can build mutually beneficial relationships with other disciplines while maintaining chemistry’s identity.

Joel Loveridge is a senior lecturer in chemistry at Swansea University