Crossing Boundaries

Graduate Students Driven to Discover

2013 IDFs: Robyn Leary, Zhenpeng Qin and Corbin TreacyStudents at the forefront of discovery

What if we could develop vaccines that would aid the body in eliminating dangerous cancer-causing cells?  What if we could use a simple “dipstick” test—similar to the tests used to diagnose strep throat or determine pregnancy—to detect deadly diseases like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis in their early stages when treatment is most effective, possibly saving millions of lives?  How are literary works shaped by cultural violence, and can literature be a force in reimagining and reshaping culture, interrupting cycles of violence?

Three University of Minnesota Ph.D. students—Robyn Leary, Zhenpeng Qin and Corbin Treacy—have integrated theories, methodologies and technologies from multiple disciplines in their pursuit of answers to these tantalizing questions.  In addition to their passion for investigation and discovery, they share another common attribute:  They all received a prestigious Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship in 2012-13 that allowed them to devote the year to their dissertation research while hosted by one of the University’s research centers. 

The challenges—and rewards—of interdisciplinary work

Probing new frontiers is both difficult and rewarding. For Corbin Treacy, a graduate student in French whose work focuses on Algeria’s tumultuous public life following the country’s independence from France in 1962, crossing disciplinary boundaries means learning the landscapes of Algeria’s political climate, economy, and intellectual culture, in addition to theories of memory, transitional justice, and historiography.

Talking to colleagues in other fields is the biggest challenge of interdisciplinary inquiry, says Corbin, as “different fields all have different frames of reference and different methodologies, which requires finding a common language for discussing one’s work.” But, this is also the biggest advantage: “Listening to how colleagues in other fields are grappling with similar questions has moved my own thinking in new and unexpected directions.” Through his research, Corbin hopes to demonstrate the power of literature not only to represent the history and politics of a nation, but to positively influence its future.

Endogenous retroviruses—“junk DNA”—are the focus of Robyn Leary’s research. How do proteins of retroviral origin function in a vertebrate organism’s healthy cells? If viral DNA encodes proteins that help kill cells that have been damaged by environmental stress, how can we use this information to prevent or eliminate cancer?

Finding answers to these and related questions led Robyn to couple her background in genetics with the field of virology, which also meant that she needed to acquire additional knowledge to conduct her research. “I felt as though I spent twice as much time reading, designing, and executing experiments in order to address each discipline,” she says. And the rewards? “Huge. I now realize that the payback multiplies, too!” Robyn, who completed her Ph.D. degree in Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology and Genetics in September, found that her interdisciplinary research led to numerous ideas for new avenues of inquiry. It also led to a postdoc position at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, where she continues to work at the interface of disciplines. She hopes others will be encouraged to examine their area of study from the lens of other fields. “A good first step is to attend lectures outside one’s department, browse journals you don’t typically read, and talk to experts from other disciplines, even though this can be intimidating,” she advises.

A graduate major in Mechanical Engineering, Zhenpeng Qin’s research required him to venture also into the field of microbiology and infectious diseases in order to develop a new method, thermal contrast, to improve the sensitivity of lateral flow immunoassays. Explains Zhenpeng, “lateral flow assays are common point-of-care rapid tests, like the over-the-counter pregnancy ‘dipstick’ test.” Such tests work well in late stages of full-blown disease, but just as with a pregnancy test, these tests are not reliable in the very early stages of a pregnancy or an infectious disease. Millions of illnesses and deaths could be avoided worldwide by improving point-of-care diagnosis of infectious diseases where early diagnosis is important to improve outcomes. The solution? Taking an already available test that uses gold nanoparticles but is unable to produce a visible result for early disease states, and using a laser to generate measurable heat from these gold nanoparticles, increases the sensitivity of the test, thereby allowing much earlier diagnosis.

For Zhenpeng, finding good collaborators in other disciplines is both critical and challenging for the success of his interdisciplinary project. Working with multiple collaborators here at the University, at the Tuberculosis Clinical Diagnostics Research Consortium (an international, interdisciplinary consortium of scientists, clinicians, and support personnel), and at Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Zhenpeng learned the skills of collaboration and coordination required for successful, cross-disciplinary work involving many individuals. Says Zhenpeng, “New ideas and innovations come from interdisciplinary interactions. The University of Minnesota is a unique environment where collaborations across disciplines can tackle important global problems.”

Centers and mentors play essential roles

The University’s Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship requires the student to spend the fellowship year in residence at a host research center under the mentorship of a faculty member who is affiliated with the center and who is someone other than the student’s formal advisor. Each of these talented Ph.D. students found their host center to be a fertile incubator for their ideas, providing them with networking opportunities and connections to other resources they otherwise would not have had.

Hosted by the Institute for Global Studies (IGS) and its Human Rights Program, Corbin found the recently formed Holocaust, Genocide, Mass Violence Interdisciplinary Workshop to be the richest aspect of his fellowship year. While all of the faculty and graduate student participants were asking similar questions about what happens to communities in the aftermath of violence, they asked them from different disciplinary perspectives and with different conclusions, contributing to a rich and diverse learning experience. Opportunities to present and discuss his research in this interdisciplinary context, both formally and informally, were key to shaping his thinking during the fellowship year. Corbin’s mentor, IGS Senior Research Associate Leigh Payne, who was at Oxford University last year, provided him with valuable feedback on his work, and steered him to critical resources, via a virtual mentoring relationship. Corbin also credits Human Rights Program Director Professor Barbara Frey for contributing to the development of his research by meeting with him regularly throughout his fellowship year.

For Robyn, being at the Institute for Molecular Virology helped her develop her scholarship “surrounded by excellence,” as exemplified by her mentor Professor Reuben Harris and his groundbreaking research about the role an antiviral enzyme plays in DNA mutations that can lead to cancer. Continuous feedback on her research through opportunities to present at lab meetings, mentor advice such as what papers to read and general career guidance, and the ability to network with other virologists helped advance her research in important ways, Robyn says.

Zhenpeng is convinced that without the Center for Infectious Diseases and Microbiology Translational Research (CIDMTR), his research would not have progressed to where it is today. CIDMTR is a “great match,” since the research he is conducting with his advisor, Professor John Bischof, and his mentor, Professor David Boulware, and others will lead to a platform technology that can be used with a wide range of infectious diseases—and CIDMTR focuses broadly on infectious diseases and has worldwide collaborations. Especially helpful during his fellowship year was the mentorship provided with respect to both engineering and clinical aspects of his research, and a travel award to present an abstract at the annual conference of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, where Zhenpeng was introduced to other investigators interested in point-of-care diagnosis of tropical infectious diseases. Regarding opportunities for collaboration at the University he says, “I feel that I can find someone on campus working on just about anything you can imagine!”

In addition to their mentors during the Fellowship year, each IDF student has an official advisor (or co-advisor), who is also critical to the student’s success.  The advisors of the three students featured in this article are Anindya Bagchi (Robyn Leary), Hakim Abderrezak and Christophe Wall-Romana (Corbin Treacy), and John Bischof (Zhenpeng Qin).  A complete list of the 2012-13 Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellows, with information about their mentors, advisors, areas of focus and host research centers, is available online.

Note: Subsequent to publication of this story, Corbin Treacy received a tenure-track position at Florida State University as an Assistant Professor of French in FSU's Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. He will begin his new position next year.