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Science in Focus: Jennifer Hampton

What I Wish I Had Known, Part 3

At home in the borderlands.

When I went to college, and even later when I entered graduate school, I never could have predicted the twists my career would take. And looking back now, from the perspective of having just been recommended for tenure at a school much like the one I entered in 1991, I have been delighted to learn that science is a whole lot more interdisciplinary than I had ever imagined.

Part of this, I suspect, was my limited teenage understanding of science. When I was in high school, I had a pretty compartmentalized view of science—geology studied rocks, biology studied living things, math studied numbers and equations, and physics, well, I was still figuring out what physics studied: blocks on inclined planes, perhaps, or simple machines (at least that was what my high school physics teacher thought). I started as an undergraduate at Oberlin College knowing I wanted to study one science or another, and ended up majoring in physics, because as I learned more about the topic, I found I loved it. It was more than blocks and simple machines, more than billiard balls and circuits; it was fundamental particles and how they interacted, the very small, the very large, and the very fast as well as the everyday.

So I studied physics and went on to continue that pursuit in graduate school at Cornell University. But what I didn't fully realize then was that these scientific "countries" bordered one another, and the interdisciplinary "borderlands" were fuzzier and more interesting than at first glance. Through a series of unexpected events, I ended up changing graduate school advisors twice, and in the process went from a more traditional physics research area to one straddling physics and chemistry, eventually landing in a research group housed in chemistry itself. My postdoctoral work at Pennsylvania State University was also in a chemistry lab, but one with group members from wide ranging backgrounds including biology and electrical engineering in addition to chemistry and physics. Through these experiences, I discovered that a lot of exciting and fascinating work is being done in these cross-disciplinary spaces.

Today, as a faculty member at Hope College, my own research program is firmly on the border between physics and chemistry. I sometimes joke that I "play at" being a chemist. But in reality, although much of the chemistry I have learned by doing, rather than through formal classwork, it is as essential to my research as physics. Collaboration and discussions with my chemistry colleagues are common. I pull students from chemistry and engineering, as well as physics, to be part of my group. I do, however, approach problems from a physicist's perspective; all my formal training is in physics, after all. The reality of interdisciplinary work is that you often must learn to communicate with those who have a unique jargon or perspective that stems from their own training. That extra work that it takes to communicate—and collaborate—across traditional disciplinary boundaries can add to the sense of accomplishment and enjoyment in the results.

My own experiences are just one example of the vast amount of interdisciplinary work that is present in science today. Whether it is computational biology or nuclear geochemistry, the number and variety of interdisciplinary projects is only increasing as time goes on. The tools and techniques developed in one discipline can be used in another to further that field and help answer questions only dreamed of in an earlier time.

I believe that the increasing prevalence of cross-disciplinary studies today reflects the increasing complexity of the world around us. As we face vexing problems, we need complex, interdisciplinary approaches to solve them. For example, we cannot tackle energy issues without chemists, engineers, inventors, and (further afield), politicians, economists, and theologians. This, I think, is part of God's creation mandate for us; understanding the world around us, caring for it, and cultivating it for our use and the flourishing of human kind, requires collaboration from all fields of inquiry, scientific and otherwise. I am trying to do my part "firmly" on the border of chemistry and physics.

Jennifer Hampton is assistant professor of physics at Hope College.

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