Undergraduate education lays the foundation on which all future education is built. Some scientists have expressed a need to broaden the scientific base at the undergraduate level in order to encourage interdisciplinary research.63,79 Traditional majors, focused in a single department, have not encouraged or rewarded interdisciplinary work. The virtue of the traditional approach of requiring narrow expertise is that students begin to feel a sense of mastery and develop a professional identity. However, neither the expertise nor the professional identity is suited for rapid changes in the life sciences. For instance, an undergraduate who majors in molecular biology without exposure to systems physiology might be unprepared to envision many kinds of clinical applications.
An alternative is the interdisciplinary undergraduate major, which requires coursework in several traditional departments but still requires expertise in a specific topic. A major in neuroscience, already a popular choice at many colleges, provides an interdisciplinary approach to the complex problem of understanding brain function. Typically, it requires a background in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology, but it includes specific courses in molecular, cellular, systems, and behavioral neuroscience with instructors in the departments of psychology, biology, and anthropology. A required thesis based on original research in one field of neuroscience ensures that students will develop proficiency in at least one field. Several excellent colleges (for example, Brown, Emory, and Harvard universities) have implemented such programs. The popularity of the Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology Program at Emory University, for example, is demonstrated by the doubling in the number of students each year the last 3 years (T. Insel, personal communication).
When a student continues into graduate school, the educational focus is usually on learning a field of science in depth and developing the research tools necessary to become an independent investigator. In the past, it was rare for a predoctoral student to be exposed to multiple disciplines. As a postdoctoral fellow, the emphasis is on further development of research skills, training in new techniques, and preparation for a research career. As postdoctoral fellows, trainees are commonly encouraged to broaden their horizons by pursuing research experience in fields that differ from the foci of their dissertations. Formal interdisciplinary training at this stage is more likely, but still not the norm.
There are now a multitude of interdisciplinary predoctoral and postdoctoral programs. The committee examined over 100 training programs and the variety of mechanisms they use to promote interdisciplinary research. The programs were identified as interdisciplinary by the funding agency, the committee, Institute of Medicine staff, or themselves. A goal of many of the programs was to