Schmoozing: Interaction Beyond the Bounds of Academic Disciplines

by Arnost Kleinzeller and Zoltan Domotor

In articulating the guiding principles for research at Penn, the Rodin administration has not only revived the earlier theme of research excellence but also it asks faculty members to look beyond the interests of their departments, to uphold the wider interests of Schools and of liberal knowledge as a whole. Despite many influencing attempts, we contend that some of these messages have not trickled down to actual research and classroom levels. In this column we describe how Penn's Schmoozers Group tries to implement the foregoing principles in biology.

"Schmoozing" is not merely a snappy title term; it refers to a sciencing activity of a group of Penn faculty members and graduate students who share across varied academic disciplines a common goal of studying, analyzing and understanding some of the most important and challenging foundational and methodological problems facing biological sciences.

The Schmoozers Group--so baptized by The Penn Gazette--was born in the middle of 1980s, when a small circle of biologists, biochemists and philosophers at Penn conceived the idea of meeting for two hours every other week. Initially, the idea was to select readings from biology, physiology, biochemistry and philosophy of science with special regards to foundational questions prompted by these disciplines, and examine and discuss the reading material from various interdisciplinary points of view. Some of these readings addressed the recurring themes of reductionism vs. autonomy, organisms vs. machines, evolution vs. creationism, order vs. chaos, models vs. metaphors, serendipity vs. discovery, brain vs. mind, hypotheses vs. data, and so on. The thought of multidisciplinary interaction is not new. College systems at Cambridge and Oxford have played a central role in the development of British science.

The term "Schmoozers" is really a misnomer; perhaps it would be better to call our conversazione an Informal Interdisciplinary Research Group in the Foundations and Methods of Biological Sciences, except that the latter is far too much of a mouthful. There is an amusing story regarding Schmoozers, told about Elizabeth Flower's memorial at the beginning of this year. When the last memorial speaker mentioned that Professor Flower was an active member of the Schmoozers Group nobody seemed to know much about, and when it was explained that this group is comprised of Penn faculty working in rather disjointed traditional disciplines, sharing a common object of study--scientific method and foundations--one guest was heard saying: "Now you will understand just how bad academic interaction has become at Penn. To do interdisciplinary research, one must go underground."

Upon hearing this, some guests had frozen grins on their faces but there is some truth in this observation. We contend that all disciplines in natural science share a number of common underlying methodological and foundational patterns. These patterns are more successfully identified when approached in two complementary ways: by looking at complex systems from inside--using highly specialized means of an autonomous discipline, and by looking at systems from the outside in a multidisciplinary manner that transcends the existing research boundaries between academic departments. Cross-fertilization of ideas in the second alternative is easy to document. We are all aware of scientific progress that often occurs at the interface of two or more seemingly unrelated disciplines. For example, in the traditional domains of physics and chemistry the shared underlying patterns have led to a virtually unparalleled development of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics.

Our discussion group was a tangential outcome of a graduate course Biochem/Physiol 560 (Methods of Inquiry in Biological Sciences). This course is intended for graduate and medical school students with diverse backgrounds and it aims at transcending some of the narrowly specialized and compartmentalized contents of traditional graduate curricula. The goal is to introduce students to a broader class of foundational, methodological and also professional ethics problems, encountered in the practice of modern biomedical research. Currently, this is the only graduate course we are aware of that explicitly and in detail addresses the question of how to do scientific research in biology.

After our first offering of the seminar during the spring of 1979, we quickly noted that the instructors

themselves had a lot to learn. This embarrassment has led us to organize the Schmoozers Group. Initially the Group was quite small but a year or so later, its membership grew steadily. At present, its most active participants hail from the Medical School, SAS, Wharton, and the Wistar Institute. However, due to growing academic pressure, many participating faculty members' attention is now focused on grant proposals, on administrative responsibilities and on ever growing academic chores, leaving schmoozing more and more to emeritus professors.

What is schmoozing good for and why is our focus on biology? We briefly touched upon two of the prevailing approaches in the traditional fields of natural science: autonomy and interdisciplinary paradigms. These methodologies are not inconsistent; rather, they are complementary. Complex systems can be viewed from inside--relative to their levels of organization, and from the outside, enabling to tackle problems prompted by complexity considerations. Schmoozers assume that modern science is not an assemblage of isolated bodies of knowledge but a grand system to produce knowledge. Such a system is well served by a recursive interaction of research groups in which scientists in one field obtain information from another field and produce something new that counts as information for others. This kind of activity--call it sciencing--has a strong cognitive feedback component that is ideal in overcoming conservatism of a narrowly specialized research group, in opening up new landscapes for scientific problem solving, and in designing alternative paths for future research.

Explosive growth of modern biology provides a fertile ground for the study of extremely complex structures and mechanisms, involving many closely linked levels of organization, dynamics and evolution. Understanding the structure and functioning of biological systems presents a particularly strong challenge both in finding the correct theoretical frameworks that properly emphasize both biological unity and diversity, and in developing a successful experimental methodology.

Members of the Schmoozers Group feel that the foundational and methodological aspects of biological sciences require alternative approaches. They are confronted with the problem of defining their subject matter in such a way that it is sufficiently concrete to attract the right kind of specialists, yet broad enough to meet the requirements and basic philosophy of interdisciplinary research: it is therefore of interest to faculty members from traditional disciplines, including those in biochemistry, biology and physiology on the one hand, and social sciences and philosophy on the other. In this manner, Schmoozers have emerged as a successful group whose approach is able to encompass theorizing about biological structures and methods. The duality between acquiring knowledge from inside--provided by the specialists in biology, and information coming from the outside--from economists, communication theorists, and so on, goes beyond the existing boundaries between traditional disciplines and offers great opportunities for research to all participants.

Are Schmoozers advocating a brand new methodology for the study of biological systems? Not exactly; but their general strategy can be summarized as follows: Much of natural science in general, and biological science in particular, shares a common foundational and methodological framework, including concept and hypothesis formation, experimental design, and empirical testing. These research activities should be properly identified and studied further, and we should know more about the ways of conveying them to our students and colleagues. We find this of particular importance in light of a floating perception among many that science is no longer fun: it is too hard on the one hand and is devoid of mysteries on the other.

In light of Penn's quest for research excellence, we believe that it is incumbent on the leaders to encourage further growth of Schmoozers-style interdisciplinary discussion groups, both in seminars and academic research.

The authors are the coordinators of the Schmoozers Group. Dr. Kleinzeller, Emeritus Professor of Physiology, can be reached at Ext. 8-8083, and Dr. Domotor, Professor of Philosophy, is at Ext. 8-6347.


Volume 43 Number 3
September 10, 1996

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