Learning the Language of Interdisciplinary Research

Posted by Miss Emma Metcalfe-Smith on 31 January 2017

At the end of my Physics degree I was assigned an essay on investigating the application of nanoparticles into laser hyperthermia for cancer treatment. Attending a university which didn't specialise in medical physics, the idea that physics could be used to cure cancer completely blew my mind. From that point on I knew that I wanted to pursue the research of physics related to the medical world.

I had no idea how this was going to be possible. I knew no medicine and hadn't studied chemistry/biology since I was 16. I panicked that the only way I was going to enter this field would be another degree in biochemistry/medicine. Before accepting this as my only option I scoured the internet, searching for PhDs with the key terms "medicine" and "physics". I was amazed to see dozens of opportunities available for physicists, including fields such as medical imaging, drug delivery and regenerative medicine. Many of these projects were being offered by 'Centres for Doctoral Training' and presented the opportunity to study another Masters, gaining insight into the new field, before progressing onto a PhD.

I gained a place at the EPSRC-funded research and training centre in 'Physical Sciences for Health' at the University of Birmingham. It focuses on interdisciplinary research at the boundaries between chemistry, physics, biomedicine, engineering and computer science looking to apply skills learnt to address the three main challenges UK healthcare faces: cardiovascular disease, ageing, and trauma. I was still unsure of what exactly I wanted to do a PhD in, I chose this course because of many possible PhD projects offered and the skills I could develop.

I started my Master's with graduates who have backgrounds in physics, chemistry, natural sciences, biochemistry and computer sciences. We began the year being taught by practising clinicians outlining healthcare challenges and how to perform computational analysis with MATLAB. In the second semester, we embarked on two 12 week mini-projects, these had to involve physical science and computational analysis being applied to a biomedical challenge.

My first mini-project, looked at the development of nanoparticles used to track cells in the liver. I synthesised nanoparticles in a wet lab as well as growing and maintaining cell cultures- something that as a physicist I never thought I would be able to do! For my second mini-project, I analysed MRI data, looking at new models that could be used to explain how water and blood move within the brain.

I have finished the Master's year and now started a PhD continuing with the research into the fundamental nature of how water and blood move within tissue. My supervisors have backgrounds in Medicine, Electronic Engineering, Chemistry and Computer Sciences respectively. I'm just starting out in interdisciplinary research yet I've already had some incredible experiences and learnt valuable lessons:

  1. Interdisciplinary Research means that you have to be competent at explaining yourself. Communicating with supervisors from multiple backgrounds means that you have to stop using the jargon seen in journals. You need to be prepared to explain yourself via a range of thought processes which requires a strong understanding of the topic you're discussing.
  2. You can't be an expert in everything. As much as I'd love to learn everything in science you need to find your limits. Some topics will have to fall outside the scope of your research. This is challenging and definitely a learning curve I'm still on.
  3. Interdisciplinary research puts you in charge of your PhD. With many different supervisors, you become the primary focus of your PhD, you're the only one who is going to be able to truly understand every aspect of it. It sounds daunting, but ultimately, you're in control of the direction the project goes in.

The University of Birmingham Physical Sciences for Health Centre focuses on research at the interface between chemical, physical, biomedical, engineering and computer science. The programme trains a new generation of scientists as interdisciplinary researchers with a broad skill-base who will be at the forefront of developing physical science to contribute to breakthroughs in biomedical sciences and healthcare.


In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Photo of Emma Metcalfe-Smith
Name: Miss Emma Metcalfe-Smith
Department: Physical Sciences for Health CDT
Organisation: University of Birmingham

Emma Metcalfe-Smith is a first-year PhD student at the EPSRC funded research and training centre in 'Physical Sciences for Health’ at the University of Birmingham.