When interdisciplinary research visited the cinema

Tosin_OnabanjoBy Tosin Onabanjo, Cranfield University


In the movie ‘Divergent (2014)’, Beatrice Prior was born into in a world governed by division into factions: a system where you could only be one thing — abnegation, amity, dauntless, erudite or candour. Turn in between societal norms and own choices, Beatrice decided for ‘Dauntless’— a faction known for bravery. This decision will not only lead her to self-discovery that she belonged to more than one faction, it was the path to the collapse of a strong wall of division between the various factions. This story reminds me of ‘Ordinary’ in Bruce Wilkinson’s Book, ‘The Dream Giver (2003), who left the Land of Familiar in pursuit of the “Big Dream” and had to face ‘Border Bullies’, the wild ‘Wasteland’ and the intimidating Giants in the Camp of ‘Anybodies’.


Though fictional, these stories reflect the rigidity of our educational systems and workspaces, where students are fitted in pre-determined course structure and eligible for work on this basis.  It also unveils real world complexities and challenges in trying to fit two or more disciplines in a society governed by conformity. Yes! multidisciplinary education is widely encouraged and in recent times, there has been strong focus on interdisciplinary research, but drawing from my personal experiences, reality is still far-fetched in major branches of science and engineering. Like Beatrice, I was faced with the choice to stay in the familiar or to step out into the unknown and like the encounter of Ordinary, I was confronted with the risk of belonging to nowhere. In 2011 among several options, I took up a doctorate degree in gas turbine technology, a big leap from my core microbiology background. I spent the first 6 months of my PhD studying fundamental mechanical engineering subjects including mathematics, thermodynamics, heat transfer, energy conversion etc, besides my core research domain. I also spent a considerable amount of time learning new softwares and developing models while preparing for opportunities in the wider domain. This sometimes means working late into the night (hours and hours of studying) and finding innovative ways to close research gaps between both disciplines. I also work hard at maintaining the right attitude in the face of opposition, building resilience to negative outcomes and asserting self-discipline. Here are a few lessons from ‘Divergent’ for anyone considering a multidisciplinary career path:


 “Alright, listen up. I’m Eric. I’m one of your leaders. If you want to enter Dauntless, this is the way in. And if you don’t have the guts to jump, then you don’t belong in Dauntless.”

“Is there water at the bottom or something?” asked Will.

“I guess you’ll find out,” replied Eric.”


  1. Taking that first step or jumping off the wagon can be very daunting and it should be.
  2. You might be faced with uncertainties and you might likely not fit into any space.


“Statistically speaking, you should have hit the target at least once by now, even by accident. I think you are actually defying nature,” said Will


  1. You will face personal doubts, pessimistic friends, rigid people, rules, systems, processes, and policies and more so, you might need to tag along with deliberate mockers.
  2. Some people will only remind you of your limitations, others will say it’s never been done.
  3. You might get more rejections than acceptance. It might be hard to publish that great piece of work after all the effort because the editors cannot find suitable reviewers or the work gets misunderstood.


Check it out, stiff. That’s gonna be your new family.”


  1. You might find yourself in the midst of strong opposition: people might try to take you down or talk you out of options. Others might passively never recommend you and you might be seen as odd.


“You chose us, now we have to choose you”.


  1. You might feel the need to prove yourself or the system wrong. You might see the need to do extra work than your peers.


“I’m never gonna make it,” said Tris


  1. You might in the middle of everything realise you’ve made a wrong choice.


I’ve had to jump off my comfort train to venture into research areas that I knew little or nothing about. I’ve had to face a lot of rejections and I’ve built resilience for systems that says it’s impossible to achieve. I’ve also had to speed learn, even with subjects such as advanced mathematics and engineering that I originally thought were not natural to me. Now, I am glad that I ventured out of my ‘Land of Familiar’ and its fulfilling to apply my multiple disciplines and work experiences in new environments. I am also enjoying the flexibility that comes with breaking new grounds. That brings me to the point the tide turned.


“Look she’s gone from being the worst to one of the best.” … “I just want to know how she does it.”

“Nobody gets through it that fast. Why don’t you tell us how you do it?” Peter asked


A multidisciplinary career can help you to interconnect multiple subjects that ordinarily are not considered to fit. It also allows you to take responsibility and ownership of your work, unlike working in already crowded spaces. This gives you some sort of flexibility, space and time to develop blue sky ideas and innovative research solutions for real-world problems. It can also improve your ability to work independently and collaboratively across several disciplines. What I love most about this is the interdisciplinary lens perspective that one develops to make connections despite the lack of evidence and support from others. I also get to criticise assumptions based on facts that might not seem obvious to a single discipline. Finally, if you are fortunate to do something awesome, which is a beautiful wish of mine, you get to change someone’s life in real terms.

Final advice, be clear on what you want, surround yourself with the best, don’t underestimate the hard work, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know, have an open-minded approach to new/difficult subjects.


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