The Peanut Butter and Relish sandwich of research

These days you can mix and match different disciplines when you tackle a research question, usually getting a deeper understanding of the question being addressed thanks to the different views you get from the different backgrounds. We can find research questions being sorted in categories like chemical ecology, bioinformatics and biophysical chemistry. Then, someone throws in the terms multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary into de mix to confuse us a bit more. But, what do these terms mean? It seems that they are used interchangeably, but they refer to different approaches. A multi- (or pluri-) disciplinary approach is when researchers from different fields come together to work on a common question, within the limits of their own discipline. When researchers reach a little bit out from the boundaries of their fields to come up with new concepts or ideas, they create a new interdisciplinary field. Then, an interdisciplinary team can evolve into a transdisciplinary one when its members feel confident enough to surpass their own disciplinary boundaries, and in turn assuming a more universal approach to a question. Inevitably, having one of these approaches has become a standard in research, to a point where there is a higher chance of getting funded if you incorporate an multi- or interdisciplinary component in your research.


Image credit: ByteSizeBio


As part of this course we are intentionally exposed to this kind of environment, having students with different and sometimes multiple backgrounds (both academic and cultural). In the short week that we have been here, it has proven to be both highly rewarding and challenging at the same time. Being in a multidisciplinary environment is a breeding ground for new and more diverse set of solutions to tackle bigger problems. By joining forces with complementary researchers, we can combine our collective expertise and gain synergy to increase our efficiency to do research. However, all these benefits have costs: the different backgrounds create huge knowledge gaps. We may even encounter ideas that seem unusual (or even bizarre) from our own perspectives, but we need to remember that our own ideas might seem outlandish to our collaborators. Learning new concepts and methods can be time consuming, so we need to account for this in our interdisciplinary endeavours. We recently had the experience of working in mini-projects in BCI and Gamboa, where we put our different mindsets to answer a question alien to most (if not all) members of the team. Remember, our cohort is comprised by students that come from all over the place: anthropologists, geological scientists, ecologists, foresters, amateur politicians, Latin-Americans, North-Americans, Europeans, English speakers, French speakers, Spanish speakers, etc. This brought different perspectives to the mix, which enrichened the final product by adding and subtracting things that the team agreed were for the best of the project.


BESS/IGERT Course 2017. Photo credit: Edwin Andrade

Personally, I’m learning a lot by being submerged in such a diverse group, more so in the out-of-classroom chats (serious and not so serious). There are a lot of aspects of life that do not restrict themselves to the single system we are focusing our research on. Moreover, we can grab ideas from other areas and adapt them to whatever we are doing. I’m using a metaphor of a peanut butter and relish sandwich because at first, the idea of mixing such different disciplines, cultures and viewpoints may sound strange to a lot, but sometimes you must add the right proportion of different (and at times opposing) views to deepen our understanding of the processes and mechanisms that rule our world to have a brilliant outcome. More experiences like this (where you force an interdisciplinary environment) should be mandatory in graduate school, as it will broaden the view of the people involved and more prone to have successful interdisciplinary research. By being part of multi-, inter- or transdisciplinary teams, we can breakdown barriers (cultural and language) to improve knowledge and create innovative ideas that move forward our global society.

Also, peanut butter and relish sandwiches are delicious as weird as they may sound. Try them out!



Gannon, F. (2005). Multidisciplinarity: by fiat or need? EMBO Reports, 6(12), 1105.

Pain, E. (2003). Multidisciplinary Research: Today’s Hottest Buzzword? Retrieved January 16, 2017, from

GlobalHigherEd. (2009). Multidisciplinary research – an essential driver for innovation. Retrieved January 16, 2017, from:


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