Q&A: Stanford's Carla Shatz on fostering successful interdisciplinary collaboration

A national report on the value of interdisciplinary approaches in the sciences highlighted Stanford Bio-X as a model for success. Carla Shatz, the director of Stanford Bio-X, talks about the report's recommendations and the factors that have helped Bio-X shine.

Norbert von der Groeben Photography Carla Shatz

Carla Shatz, director of Stanford Bio-X, credits the university's leadership and location for much of the program's success.

The National Research Council of the National Academies recently released a report with recommendations on how to foster interdisciplinary collaboration in the sciences, looking at Stanford Bio-X as one model for success.

Bio-X, which was founded in 1998, bridges the life sciences in the School of Medicine and the Humanities & Sciences with Engineering and physics to create collaborations that have led to new fundamental knowledge about the human body while spawning companies and producing new approaches to treating disease.

Bio-X is one of 18 interdisciplinary labs, centers and institutes at Stanford that span school and department boundaries and have helped create a culture where collaborations can flourish. And what's become clear over time is that these interdisciplinary collaborations matter in both the sciences and humanities. Working together, faculty members can tackle problems that no one discipline can handle alone, from environmental science and international policy to the human condition and the physical world.

Stanford News Service spoke with Carla Shatz, the David Starr Jordan Director of Stanford Bio-X, about the factors that make an interdisciplinary program like Bio-X successful. Shatz is also the Sapp Family Provostial Professor  and professor of biology and neurobiology.

John Hennessy, Stanford's president, has called Bio-X a cauldron of innovation and the NSC report points to Bio-X as an interdisciplinary success story. What was in the Bio-X cauldron when it launched that made it so effective?

It was partly really great vision and partly great luck and partly location, location, location. In 1998, when Bio-X launched, there was already a very highly interactive group of basic scientists in the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences. They thought it would be great if there were a program that encouraged other faculty to work in the same way because it was so productive. We were lucky because we had these collaborative faculty members and the university is configured with all of these schools just a five- to ten-minute walk from each other. Stanford is also within this incredibly entrepreneurial atmosphere in Silicon Valley where people are willing to take risks and try things that might not actually work. That collaborative and entrepreneurial environment was critical. You have to be able to walk into someone's lab and say, "You know, I have this problem in my lab. Would you like to have a cup of coffee and talk about it?" And then that person needs to say, "Yes."

Then I think the other thing was a visionary president in John Hennessy. It was critical to have someone at the top listen to ideas bubbling up from the faculty and who also recognized the opportunity to really bring a lot of disciplines together to try to understand the life sciences and the human body in health and disease. The president also recognized that financially Bio-X had to be all gain and no loss for faculty. He initially funded our incredibly successful Seed grant program and continues to support it. I think people at other universities were aware of the value of interdisciplinary research, but we were unique in having these ingredients coming together in one place with both the bottom-up faculty vision and top-down leadership. I don't think those factors were in place anywhere else. 

Fifteen years after Bio-X was founded, interdisciplinary research has become a buzzword, with other universities starting their own programs and now the NSC convening this workshop. Why is it the right time for the Bio-X concept to spread?

I think people are seeing the amazing success of Bio-X and other interdisciplinary programs. I mean, I know there are many problems that don't need interdisciplinary approaches to solve. But there are also problems that cannot be solved without those sorts of approaches. We have a faculty member who is an optical physicist (Mark Schnitzer, associate professor of biology and applied physics) and he teamed up with someone who works on muscle physiology (Scott Delp, professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering) to make a new kind of micro-endoscope that lets you look at muscle. That problem was solved because there were two people in different fields who decided to work together and got Seed funding to launch the work.

Or look in my own lab. We work on immune genes in the brain. We are not immunologists and we were limping along. Now we have this fabulous collaboration with a serious immunology lab (Chris Garcia, professor of molecular & cellular physiology and of structural biology) and because of it we may be able to make new drugs that might even work to treat Alzheimer's one day. We would never have even been able to think about that if we hadn't gone to them for help, and if they hadn't said yes. 

The NRC report refers to a chart created by Stanford Professor of Education Daniel McFarland, who found that interactions between faculty had dramatically increased in the 10 years after the founding of Bio-X. What does the chart show?

The chart shows a line between two faculty members for every collaboration, every shared student, every grant or paper. Those lines are all silo-busting lines. Every faculty member is in a department within a school – silos. And every time they collaborate, that breaks down these vertical barriers, which are really the fundamental organizational structure for the university. Of course, great universities need to have those great departments and great schools, but I think what the lines represent are another way for a university to be organized on top of, not instead of, schools and departments. It takes advantage of the excellence among the individual disciplines and then builds outward from them into these networks that you see. We know Bio-X has been successful in generating incredibly innovative science, but the chart really shows how successful we've been at building collaboration.

Two strategies noted in the report for encouraging interdisciplinary science are a central location and a building designed to encourage interactions. Did those contribute to the success of Bio-X?

Putting the Clark Center where it is located, at the intersection of the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities & Sciences, was extremely deliberate. And the building itself is constructed to maximize bumps and interactions between people, including the restaurant and coffee shop. You know a lot of discoveries and advances are serendipitous and often come out of a chance. You bump into somebody, you start talking, you have a cup of coffee, and while you are comparing notes you realize you have something in common. If you don't have a building it's harder but it still can work. There are a few other things we do to increase interactions that wouldn't require a building. We hold symposia where our Seed grant recipients and students discuss their work. This forces people to get together in one place to share information. I also think now that even the process of selecting the grants and competing for them has become a collective process with many faculty teams getting together and planning projects.

What is the role of educating young people in fostering interdisciplinary research? This is something the NRC report specifically recommends.

Ten years ago Bio-X started funding PhD students working on projects with two or more mentors. Unlike us more "wise" and senior faculty who have less pliable brains, these students really are able to assimilate a variety of fields. It's an act of creation to have one of these students working between labs. It's creating a new kind of brain where knowledge resides in one place as opposed to the two brains or three brains of the mentors. If you get all that information into one brain and one circuit, then new combinations of ideas can come out. This is something we didn't realize until these students started getting scarfed up and hired. It was clear that this kind of new educational product from Stanford was very attractive to other universities, to industry and to pharmaceutical companies. 

Amy Adams, Stanford News Service: (650) 796-3695, amyadams@stanford.edu

Carla Shatz, Stanford Bio-X: cshatz@stanford.edu