The Cutting Edge: Interdisciplinary Possibilities

Letters and Science faculty talk about the culture of interdisciplinarity at UC Santa Barbara and the possibilites for graduate students to do cutting-edge research.

Leila Rupp

Professor, Feminist Studies; Associate Dean, Social Sciences

Leila on stage at Coming Out DayLeila Rupp studies women's movements, sexualities, comparative and transnational women's history.

UC Santa Barbara has a culture of interdisciplinarity, both in terms of strong interdisciplinary units (including, in the Division of Social Sciences, Asian American Studies, Black Studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, Feminist Studies, and Global Studies) and ease of movement across disciplinary boundaries. My own teaching and research in Feminist Studies is profoundly interdisciplinary. My undergraduate course, “Sex, Love, and Romance” explores the ways people desire, love, and form relationships across time and place from a variety of perspectives. My graduate courses on “Global Feminisms” and “Sexualities” bring together history, sociology, anthropology, and political science. And my current book project, “Sapphistries,” draws from a range of disciplines to explore a global history of love between women, including literary representations that allow us to imagine what we cannot know from documentary sources. Students interested in creative scholarly work that cannot be contained within the bounds of traditional disciplines find UCSB a congenial place to learn and work.

Cynthia Stohl

Professor, Communication

Cynthia Stohl PhotoDr. Stohl is concerned with the relationships among internal and external communication processes as they are manifest in global collaborations. Her most recent work addresses a diversity of network and collective action organizations in the global context including a focus on new communication technologies and terrorist organizations. She is now a co-principal investigator on an NSF grant on Technological Change and Collective Association: Changing Relationships Among Technology, Organizations, Society, and the Citizenry.

When I first arrived at UCSB, I was told about the supportive interdisciplinary culture but I didn’t really understand what it meant. During my first year, I attended several talks sponsored by many of the interdisciplinary centers on campus. Before long, and as a direct result of the informal, informative, and intellectually stimulating interactions that took place during these presentations I was involved in writing an NSF grant with colleagues from my own and other disciplines. The many opportunities to meet, interact, and network with others who have similar interests but are outside your home department truly embodies the interdisciplinary spirit that is UCSB.

I have always been interested in the societal benefits of organizational participation but not until I began working with colleagues who focus on political action and technology did I begin to fully account for the theoretical frameworks that have been developed in other disciplines that address the very phenomena I had been approaching from a communicative perspective. Working with colleagues in Communication and Political Science, we developed and conducted a survey of over 10,000 members of collective action organizations to explore the relationship between new communication technologies and ways of organizing. Based on the results of the survey, we are completing a book, The Transformation of Collective Life: Engaging and Organizing in the Contemporary Media Environment, which argues that collective life has been transformed by changing technology and thus there is a need to reconsider traditional theories of collective action and organizing that have been prominent in political science, economics, communication, and sociology.

Graduates students from Political Science, Communication and Media Arts have been directly involved in the research program. Besides working directly on this particular grant, many of our graduates students working on issues related to information technology and society have also taken advantage of the opportunities provided by the Center for Information, Technology, and Society and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society. Serving on the executive council of the CITS and teaching graduate courses on globalization and communication that are part of the interdisciplinary program, have introduced me to students across a diversity of departments in Engineering, the Social Sciences, Education, and the Humanities whose research addresses some of the most complex and significant problems facing the world today, which we recognize can only be addressed through the integration of theory, methods, and expertise across multiple disciplines.

The key to UCSB is taking advantage of the many types of opportunities that are available. Graduate students in the Communication Department are active participants in the programs, public events, lectures, and conferences sponsored by the interdisciplinary centers on campus. Graduate students take classes across the university that lead to special certificates in such areas as Language Interaction and Social Organization, Global Studies, and Technology and Society. Getting to know faculty across campus, working with these faculty on research projects, as well as working part time in the administration and support of these programs not only improves the quality of students’ own work but increases the breadth and depth of the types of positions students are eligible for upon completion of their Ph.D’s. Most importantly, through these opportunities students develop a rich and diverse network of support that goes far beyond their time as students at UCSB. 

Josh Schimel

Program Chair, Environmental Studies; Professor, Evolution, Ecology and Marine Biology

Josh Schimel PhotoProfessor Schimel’s research sits at the interface of ecosystem and microbial ecology. He is interested in the role of soil microbes in controlling ecosystem scale processes, particularly the linkages between plant and soil processes, and how changes in microbial community structure affects ecosystem-scale dynamics. His work currently focuses on three ecosystems: the Arctic tundra in Alaska, the taiga forest of Alaska, and the California annual grassland-oak savanna.

The greatest thing about being a scientist at UCSB is that disciplinary boundaries don't really exist. Every single one of my Ph.D. students has had committee members from at least one other department, including Geography, the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, and others. At the same time, I have worked with students in the Bren School, the Geography Department, and even Anthropology. Even within Ecology and Evolution, my students in soil ecology are likely to have committee members who are marine scientists, interested in analogous processes but in a very different environment. 

My students’ work has had a great impact on my own research. For example, Izaya Numata, a Brazillian student working with Dar Roberts in Geography, was using remote sensing to evaluate how fast pastures in Brazil degrade after being cleared of the forest, and what factors control how fast they degrade. An important part of that project was to do the "ground truthing," doing the on-site characterization of soil fertility that could be matched against the satellite-based signals. I knew nothing about remote sensing, while Dar knew little about measuring soil fertility. Izaya was able to put together a team including Dar, Oliver Chadwick, and me to take advantage of Oliver's expertise in soil characterization, my expertise in soil nutrients and fertility, and Dar's expertise in remote sensing, to do a really exciting and important piece of research that has resulted in four published papers of which we are all co-authors. I also learned a lot about remote sensing. 

A second example is Noah Fierer, who is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado. Noah was interested in soil microbes and how they regulate ecosystem functioning. As part of his Ph.D. work, he put together a number of collaborations, including with Manny Gabeh, a Ph.D. geomorphology student of Tom Dunne. Manny was interested in how rain events mobilize sediments on hill slopes. Noah was interested in how rain events stimulate microbial activity in dry soils. Together, they built a device to simulate rainfall, with drops of the right size, energy, and overall intensity. Manny measured sediment yield and Noah microbial processes in the rainfall plots. Noah also worked closely with Dr. Patricia Holden in the Bren School to integrate the molecular biology tools she was expert in with his ecological process work to explore how microbial communities change through the soil profile and as a result of dry/wet stress cycles. He also worked with Oliver Chadwick to take advantage of Oliver's large-scale isotope biogeochemistry expertise. 

There are many ways to build interdisciplinary projects that don't require established programs to define the nature of the program. Many, perhaps most, faculty really enjoy expanding their repertoire, working with students and faculty from across campus. In many of these, the students are the glue that bring the faculty together, tightening the interdisciplinary web that defines UCSB. Doing so here is very easy. If something or someone is on campus, the chances are good that you can connect up. 

This ease of flow cross campus is actually one of the benefits of UCSB's size. We are a "small, big University;" big enough to have a wealth of resources and talent, yet small enough that we know each other and have a communal culture that is campus-based rather than department-based. I don't feel like a member of Ecology & Evolution, I feel like a member of UCSB.

Mary Bucholtz

Professor, Linguistics

Mary Bucholtz PhotoMary Bucholtz’s research interests include sociocultural linguistics; language and identity; linguistic representation; language, gender, and sexuality; African American English; American Spanish; language in California.

If your research and teaching goals don't fit the traditional disciplinary mold, UCSB is the place to pursue them. UCSB truly fosters innovative interdisciplinary training, research, and teaching among its graduate students. Linguistics students, for example, regularly interact with faculty and students in at least a dozen other departments on campus through undergraduate teaching, graduate courses, Ph.D. emphases, research focus groups, and collaborative research. 

The most valuable research moves scholarly inquiry in new, unexpected directions. Often this means drawing widely on the best ideas and approaches from multiple fields. Early in my career my interdisciplinary orientation was often met with puzzlement, and more than once I was admonished, "That's not linguistics!" But when I got to UCSB, I knew I was finally in the right place. My colleagues in my department and around campus weren't worried about policing disciplinary boundaries; they found my work interesting and even exciting.

Faculty and graduate students alike are drawn to UCSB because of its strong interdisciplinarity. This isn't just lip service. UCSB backs up its commitment with financial and institutional support for interdisciplinary endeavors, from the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center's Research Focus Groups and funding for student and faculty collaborative research to the campus's numerous interdisciplinary Ph.D. Emphases, which allow students to add interdisciplinary breadth to their degrees. 

I'm currently affiliated with two departments outside my home department, and I'm involved in two research focus groups and three Ph.D. emphases, along with a number of interdisciplinary projects with faculty and graduate students:

  • an upcoming conference on California's linguistic diversity, which brings together participants from numerous departments on campus and throughout the UC system
  • a large research study of identity and social interaction among undergraduate women and men in science, which brings together theories, methods, and concepts from linguistics, anthropology, sociology, feminist studies, education, and the sciences
  • a new initiative currently in development, to train linguistics and education graduate students through outreach in local public high school social studies classes

I find that I learn a lot more in my research and teaching when people from different disciplinary perspectives come together to address a common goal or problem. No single discipline has all the answers, and for those of us trying to understand something as complex as language in the social world, we need to draw on all the tools we can find. 

My own graduate courses often include students from several other departments, and the exchange of ideas across disciplines is stimulating both for them and for the linguistics students. I strongly encourage my students to teach and take courses in other departments and to earn one or more Ph.D. emphases so they'll have the intellectual flexibility to address the big questions they'll face as scholars and teachers concerning language, culture, and society.

Richard Appelbaum

Professor and MacArthur Chair in Global & International Studies and Sociology

Richard Appelbaum PhotoRichard Appelbaum’s research includes world-system theory; global production and labor; science, technology, and society.

UCSB rightly prides itself on being highly interdisciplinary, fostering collaborations across what is usually the science/social science/humanities divides. Our program in Global and International Studies includes faculty and students from the humanities and social sciences, whose research ranges from the study of religious nationalism to the role of technology in economic development. Our two-year MA program in Global Studies, which prepares students for careers in global civil society organizations, attracts students from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds (and a wide range of countries as well); their interests have ranged from environmental preservation to the use of drugs to eradicate malaria in Tanzania to eliminating child labor in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan. 

My own research, for example - under the auspices of the NSF-funded Center for Nanotechnology in Society - looks at emerging technologies in emerging economies such as China. In conducting this research, I work closely with colleagues in the College of Engineering, the History, Political Science, Sociology, and Feminist Studies Departments. In my capacity as a professor of both Sociology and Global and International Studies, my most recent graduate students have worked on a highly diverse (and interdisciplinary) range of projects - for example, the experience of women immigrants from Africa and Central Europe, who play an increasingly central role in caring for of Italy's aging population; how the World Trade Organization manages disputes, particularly when the countries involved have disparate economic and political power; and the role of emerging technologies in enabling "green" and sustainable economic development in India and China.

Anthony Barbieri-Low

Assistant Professor, History (Ancient China, Chinese Archaeology, and Epigraphy)

Anthony Barbieri-Low - Artisans in Early Imperial China - Book CoverAnthony Barbieri-Low’s research is currently focused on craftsmen in Ancient China, cultural contact and transmission between China and the West, historical interpretations of the Qin Dynasty, and law and society in Early China. 

Since coming to UC Santa Barbara, I have enjoyed discussing research with faculty in Anthropology, Classics, Art History, and East Asian Studies whose work all intersects with mine in some way. The research focus groups of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center are a good place to interact with faculty from other disciplines.

My own research has always been highly interdisciplinary. My first book was an exhibition catalog, researched and co-authored by historians, art historians, and archaeologists, and my most recent book, Artisans in Early Imperial China, was a multi-disciplinary approach to writing a social history of artisans using the methodologies of art history, history, and archaeology. It has subsequently received awards or recognition from both the American Historical Association and the College Art Association. I have encouraged all the graduate students I have trained to take courses as broadly as possible, in other related disciplines like Anthropology and Art History. 

One of my current PhD students is developing a dissertation topic involving government food bequests and rations during early imperial China. I have guided her to look not only at historical records, but also inscriptions and texts excavated from tombs. I also encouraged her to have a second field in physical anthropology, so that she could discuss the impact of nutrition on bones and human health.

That it allows them to broaden their view of their topic, and to make connections with other faculty and graduate students whose work intersects with theirs in unexpected ways. 

Dennis Clegg

Professor, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department; Co-Director, UCSB Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering

Dennis Clegg PhotoDr. Clegg studies neural development and regeneration, with a current emphasis in stem cell research. Dr. Clegg is the recipient of the UCSB Distinguished Teaching Award in the Physical Sciences, and has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry. He is a member of the UCSB Neuroscience Research Institute. 

The Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering is an interdisciplinary center that fosters stem cell research at the interface between engineering and molecular biology. UCSB is well positioned to make unique, significant contributions in stem cell research, with extraordinary enabling technologies in biomaterials, systems biology, nanotechnology, micro-processing and bioengineering, all of which are synergistic with fundamental biomedical research efforts. Our approaches are uniquely distinct from those at California medical schools, with our emphasis on basic biological questions and engineering challenges related to stem cell research. 

At UCSB, departmental boundaries are minimal, and there are many interdepartmental graduate programs and research collaborations. For example, many engineers on campus are attracted by the importance and challenge of biological questions and applications, and this has resulted in an emerging program in bioengineering. 

Alan Liu

Professor, English; Director, UC Transliteracies Project

Transliteracies Project LogoAlan Liu researches and teaches the culture of information. His special focus is the relation between the humanities and the ethos of postindustrial "knowledge work" as the latter is assisted and allegorized by information technology.

UCSB has one of the strongest, deepest, and fast-moving cultures of interdisciplinary research and teaching in the nation. UCSB's research environment--in which projects form quickly around multiple humanities and arts departments or around innovative combinations of the humanities and arts with the social sciences, sciences, and engineering--has the feel of a "start up" company.

In the area of digital technologies, our English Department began by collaborating informally in the early 1990's with faculty and graduate students in the Art, Film & Media Studies, and other humanities departments, as well as with the social sciences and computer science disciplines (especially through the Center for Information Technology and Society). A history of shared conferences, courses, and programs led to formal collaborations in such projects as the Transliteracies Project on online reading that I direct, the new Social Computing Group that I participate in, the Bluesky graduate-student research group that I supervise (employing students in English, Comparative Literature, Film and Media Studies, Media Arts and Technology, Sociology, Communication, and Computer Science), or the Gateway Seminar for the Ph.D. Emphasis in Technology and Society in which multiple faculty regularly participate. In turn, such projects driven by flexible clusters of faculty and graduate students across disciplines have spawned a whole series of discrete team or individual projects, ranging from papers and books to websites, Flash movies (e.g., of the history of the book), and software application sketches.

Recently I taught a graduate seminar ("Literature+") in which teams of graduate students from across the humanities and other disciplines collaborated to build projects about literature using a variety of new software tools and online services. The premise was that these new tools--which all the disciplines now use in common--are symbolic of a broader, interdisciplinary initiative in society today. 

Whether one goes on from a graduate program to enter academe, industry, government, a non-governmental organization, or some other profession, the premium is on people who are trained to work not just in their discipline but with others across disciplines. The future professor of English will need to know enough about text encoding, software protocols, social networking, and Web services to be able to plan and execute projects together with social scientists and engineers, just as social scientists and engineers will need to work with specialists in the creation, editing, and analysis of discourse. UCSB is heavily invested in such cross-disciplinary training.

George Lipsitz

Professor, Black Studies

George Lipsitz - Footsteps in the Dark - book coverGeorge Lipsitz studies social movements, urban culture, and inequality, and has been active in struggles for fair housing and educational equity.

Disciplinary methods, truth tests, conversations, and concerns continue to be vital and essential parts of scholarly work, but some research objects and research questions can be addressed more effectively through interdisciplinary work. At UCSB we experience the both of both worlds. Our distinguished faculty conducts excellent research and trains researchers inside the disciplines, but we also benefit from the presence of interdisciplinary departments, programs, and collaborative research efforts.

In my thirty years of teaching in different universities all across the nation, I have never seen a better climate for interdisciplinary scholarship than the one we have here at UCSB. Campus structures, rules, and regulations encourage dialogue across and within disciplines. The extraordinary group of original and generative scholars grounded in interdisciplinary frames makes this campus a wonderful place for doing this kind of work.

I hold an appointment in Black Studies, an interdisciplinary department with faculty members trained in history, political science, literature, psychology, urban planning, musicology, American Studies, and Ethnic Studies. We profit greatly from the different perspectives we bring to similar research objects, learning as much from our differences as from our similarities. We work closely with other distinguished interdisciplinary units on campus: Chicana and Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies, Feminist Studies, Religious Studies, and Education. Yet we also collaborate on research projects and teach students in the disciplines. For example, I hold adjunct appointments in English, Film and Media Studies, and History, and have served on dissertation committees in Religious Studies, and Musicology. My appointment also includes regular responsibilities in the Department of Sociology where I teach graduate and undergraduate courses, advise master’s and doctoral students, and co-author research with departmental colleagues.

Interdisciplinarity has an enormous presence in my research and teaching. My degree is in history, but I have published work in specialized journals in anthropology, sociology, musicology, literary studies, art history, communication, film studies, landscape architecture, and urban planning. Graduate students that I have advised are now professors in a broad range of humanities and social science disciplines as well as in interdisciplinary programs.

One of the more exciting projects that I have participated in at UCSB has been the Race, Place, and Power initiative. Composed of faculty and students from across the campus working on issues of space (such as cognitive mapping, borders, boundaries, cultural morphology, transportation, environmental justice, migration, trade, and war), we have organized conferences, lectures, courses, colloquia, study groups, community outreach, and collaborative research and publication. In the Black Studies department, we have worked on and off campus on issues of community development, residential segregation, educational inequality, and the connections that link culture and place.

David Lea

Professor, Earth Science

David Lea PhotoDavid Lea studies records of past climate-from centuries to hundreds of thousands of years-that are encoded in marine sediments and in coral reefs. By using this natural "marine archive," Lea studies the link between changing ocean composition and global climate change, in particular through the cycle of carbon dioxide. This research is increasingly important to understanding the effect of human-induced changes of Earth's atmosphere through the production of greenhouse gases.

Graduate students attending UCSB will find that that there are essentially no disciplinary boundaries here. You can find whatever expertise you need to pursue your graduate work, both in and outside your chosen department or program, without having to break down any disciplinary boundaries. One of my most successful doctoral students entered with undergraduate and masters degrees in marine biology from Mexican Universities, was a member of our Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Marine Science, and had his home in the Earth Science Department. 

In my career at UCSB, I have effortlessly collaborated and consulted with members of virtually every science department on campus, as well as with members of many departments outside the sciences.

When I first arrived at UCSB, I began a collaboration with a young marine biologist which changed my career. It enabled me to utilize experiments with living marine organisms to test hypotheses about how climate signals are archived in marine microfossils. Without the fundamental data from these collaborative experiments, I would not have followed the research path that ultimately lead me to the most important discoveries in my career.

In 2007, I put on a campus-wide program about global warming, which ultimately attracted over 3000 attendees to a series of lectures and public events. UCSB’s interdisciplinary nature was critical to the success of this program. Faculty participants came from departments and schools across campus, ranging from the College of Engineering, to the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, to the English and Sociology Departments, and every science department on campus. It was the different perspectives brought by scholars from wide-ranging disciplines that made the program so novel.