Technology has brought great promise and hope to the world, whether it’s in regard to health or productivity, but its effectiveness depends on whether scientists can transcend the confines of traditional fields to propose holistic solutions.

The central appeal of this interdisciplinary approach is obvious enough. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), funded by U.S. Congress, notes that it “has long recognized the value of interdisciplinary research in pushing fields forward and accelerating scientific discovery. Important research ideas often transcend the scope of a single discipline or program.”

Global scientists, academics and industry leaders are very aware of this fact, making it no surprise that there has been a huge shift toward interdisciplinary research. According to Nature, a respected journal of science, “since the mid-1980s, research papers have increasingly cited work outside their own disciplines.” Graphs prepared by the journal show trend lines that are clearly moving toward interdisciplinary citations – with references to other disciplines rising, and references within the same speciality declining.


Picture courtesy of Maastricht University


But why do people choose to study the broad and varying fields of interdisciplinary science? Well, the answer is simple – because students in these programmes gain a deeper understanding of our very complex world. They examine scientific topics more deeply and thoroughly because they are asked to consider them from a variety of perspectives.

For example, how would a biologist view the process of photosynthesis (by which plants make food) compared to a chemist? What would they focus on and how would they differ? The key is to merge both these perspectives together to form a coherent whole so you can figure out what the biologist and the chemist are missing out on individually.

Indeed, imagine if the solution were a jigsaw puzzle. Students must find the missing pieces, drawing from different disciplines and viewpoints, and put them together in the right order. Naturally, critical thinking and creativity play major roles in an interdisciplinary science programme. And when the ‘puzzle’ is solved, it can be incredibly satisfying and empowering. Thus, an interdisciplinary science student is less a passive observer, and more an active participant in the world.

Being active also means going out of your way to collaborate with others, especially those with expertise in other fields. When considering a new medical drug, for example, one might consult or work with a team of chemistry, biology, and medical experts. Needless to say, students and researchers also sharpen their social and leadership skills through efforts such as these.


Picture courtesy of Maastricht University


Of course some fields are more collaborative (or interdisciplinary) than others. As a chart by Nature points out, general biology and general biomedical research tend to be more interdisciplinary than their peers. This is likely due to their shared history and subject matter with fields like chemistry and mathematics. You may observe the importance of these fields in crucial processes like DNA sequencing, which has resulted in life-saving advances in medical research.

Harnessing the power of the interdisciplinary sciences, many top universities are offering new innovative programmes catered to students looking to make their mark in history. One particular university that stands out is Maastricht University (UM). While UM is the youngest university in the Netherlands, it maintains impressive rankings – a testament to its outstanding teaching and research.

The latest edition of the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings placed Maastricht University at 88th, up from 101st last year. THE also ranked UM as the fourth best university worldwide aged under 50 years. The publication has also named the university the 14th most international university in the world (2016) – a good measure of potential research collaboration at and through UM.

Maastricht University has two stand-out and well-regarded programmes in the interdisciplinary sciences. The first is the Master of Bio-based Materials programme. Positioned at the interface of chemistry, biology and materials science, the programme concerns materials (partly) made from biological components. This is an exciting and growing field as government and industry contend with sustainability issues over fossil fuels – for example, how would plastics be made once the oil supply runs out. Graduates will have to consider if new, sustainable materials can be produced based on the molecular structures in nature itself. The programme combines concepts from industry with fundamental academic research into materials and processes which can contribute to a sustainable circular economy.


Picture courtesy of Maastricht University


UM’s other distinctive programme is Master of Systems Biology. Systems Biology can be described as a systematic gathering of knowledge at all levels, from molecules to entire ecosystems and its integration into quantitative (computer) models. These models make accurate simulation of biological processes possible. Students will use biology, in combination with data science, neuroscience and mathematics to gain deeper insight into the mechanisms of life, such as the evolution of animals and plants, the development of diseases, and possibly the development of new medical therapies. As you can tell, the field may have far-reaching implications for human health long into the future, making it ideal for those who really want to make a difference.

Last year, The Telegraph reported that in the UK alone, a record number of graduates had entered employment six months after graduating. The same report notes that in terms of fields of study, graduates of Physics and Biology experienced the fourth and fifth-highest levels of employment respectively, and that’s not to mention these sorts of graduates enrolled at university throughout the rest of the world. Undertaking interdisciplinary programmes like these are great way to set yourself apart and keep yourself in high demand as these fields – sustainability and bio-mathematics – expand with new job opportunities. Combining the sciences is no mere trend; it is, in fact, the future.


Picture courtesy of Maastricht University


This article is sponsored by Maastricht University (UM). Located in the Netherlands, it is the youngest and most international university in the country, hosting over 16,000 students. Notwithstanding its youth, UM is a well-regarded, world-class institution – Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings placed Maastricht University at 88th, up from 101st last year. UM is well-known for its innovative Problem-Based Learning (PBL) education model, which focuses not just on subject matter, but also personal development of skills such as self-reliance, assertiveness, and problem-solving. The university offers cutting-edge interdisciplinary science programmes, including those focused on bio-based materials and systems biology.

Feature image courtesy of Maastricht University

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