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How I fused my disparate passions as an interdisciplinary researcher

Why are you here? You seem a little bit out of place.” I was attending a conference about contemporary art, and right before my talk a distinguished scholar approached me. As a small conversation group formed around us, I introduced myself as a psychology Ph.D. student who would be presenting research on how the brain reacts to art. Silence descended, and all eyes were on me. It was true that I was an unusual attendee at what was otherwise a conference full of art scholars. But his comment hit me like a tidal wave. Suddenly, the room felt intimidating. Only later did I learn how to stand up for myself and be proud of my status as an interdisciplinary researcher.

Years earlier, when I was a master’s student in cognitive neuroscience, my professors advised me, “Marta, narrow your focus. Choose one interest and pursue a single goal.” I know they were giving me valuable advice. But the reality was that my mind was a whirlwind of ideas, and I found myself captivated by many subjects—some far outside neuroscience. Art had always been an integral part of my life: I grew up in a family of artists and art teachers. I was also fascinated by new technology and how it allowed researchers to explore uncharted waters.

So, I disregarded my professors’ advice and looked for ways to merge my disparate passions. I scoured job opportunities, searching for roles that would allow me to integrate art, neuroscience, and technology. For a while it seemed an impossible mission. Then I stumbled on an opportunity to work in a psychology lab that welcomed not only scientists, but also artists and technologists. Interdisciplinarity was not merely encouraged; it was celebrated as the essence of groundbreaking research. I devised a Ph.D. project that involved imaging the brain and asking people how they felt when they were exposed to art via immersive technologies.
I didn’t profess to be an expert in any field. Instead, I saw myself as a bridge between domains." -Marta Pizzolante, Catholic University of Milan

When I entered the Ph.D. program and started the project, I felt I had finally found my place. I dove into the study of art history, as well as technologies that allowed people to have new aesthetic experiences. I had colleagues from other fields—artists, engineers, and computer scientists—who were open to helping me and providing valuable advice.

However, the research journey didn’t unfold as smoothly as I had envisioned. Each scientific conference I attended, regardless of its focus, left me feeling like an imposter, as academics tried to pigeonhole me into a known professional category. Looking around, I also noticed that whereas other students’ research projects were comfortably nestled within their respective domains, I seemed to be setting myself up for being a jack of all trades but a master of none.

I wondered whether I should give up, convinced I had veered off course irreparably. But then, after a long day at work, I attended the opening of an art exhibit at a local museum. It was dedicated to history’s most fervent advocate of interdisciplinarity: Leonardo da Vinci, an artist, scientist, and inventor. I hung on the words of the museum guide: “Had he not been intrigued by myriad subjects, his achievements would have remained elusive.”

These simple words, coming at a profoundly challenging juncture in my life, reshaped my perspective and renewed my determination. From then on, when I spoke with scholars, I made it a point to articulate my unique perspective, emphasizing that I didn’t profess to be an expert in any field. Instead, I saw myself as a bridge between domains, aiming to synthesize knowledge and foster interdisciplinary connections. I welcomed and learned from their criticisms. And I reached out to other interdisciplinary researchers to discuss the hurdles they encountered and how they overcame them.

In the end, my academic journey has taught me that you may not have to choose among your passions—you may be able to pursue them all. For me, that’s turned into a rewarding opportunity. I’ve found that the true value of interdisciplinary research lies in the fresh and unique perspectives you can create by melding various disciplines’ viewpoints.

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