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Breaking Down Silos: How Transdisciplinary STEM Collaboration is Shaping the Future

Previously published by Georgia Tech News: By Michael Pearson

Even a few years ago, genomics wouldn’t have been an area of research you’d necessarily expect to find humanities and social sciences researchers working shoulder-to-shoulder with their counterparts in STEM fields to find solutions to pressing problems.


But that’s exactly what Jay Clayton, a professor at Vanderbilt University, achieved with his project examining how film, shows, and social media portray the risks and benefits posed by genetic science.


Clayton recently visited Georgia Tech to share his experience and model of transdisciplinary collaboration among scholars in science, literature, and the social sciences. During his visit, he gave a talk and presided over a faculty workshop.


“The discussions of his work at both events confirmed the strong interest and potential in future transdisciplinary efforts in the College and the Institute,” said Richard Utz, senior associate dean in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. “We should capitalize on the momentum these discussions indicate and follow Dr. Clayton’s example of linking our individual disciplines and their methodologies with those in other units, especially for the sake of our students, who crave experiential learning that not only increases knowledge, but also directly impacts policy and society.”


The events were co-sponsored by the School of Literature, Media, and Communication; the School of Modern Languages; and the School of Public Policy. The events also brought together colleagues from Georgia Tech’s Center for Integrative Genomics.


How the Humanities Can Inform Science Policy 

Clayton’s work, which attracted $8 million in National Institutes of Health funding, seeks to better understand how culture affects attitudes towards genetic privacy, demonstrating, Clayton said, “how humanists can collaborate with scientists to have tangible effects on public policy.” 

His team, which includes students in public policy, economics, anthropology, and other fields, examined hundreds of films and shows, including Blade Runner, X-Men films, and medical dramas, coding them for how they portrayed genetic research. They not only discovered changes in attitudes toward genetic privacy over the years but also successfully published 24 articles in refereed journals — most with undergraduate students as co-authors.


The ongoing work has helped Clayton develop his problem-based approach to research, in which scholars from a variety of disciplines look to examine a single issue and share data but use their own research methods as they work toward synthesizing their conclusions and policy recommendations. 

The model is the subject of Clayton’s 2023 book, Literature, Science, and Public Policy: From Darwin to Genomics

Similarities to VIP 

Whereas the concept may be new to some in the liberal arts, it is likely more familiar to the Georgia Tech community. The Vertically Integrated Project program, founded at Georgia Tech in 2008, involves undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in large-scale, multidisciplinary projects. 

Ivan Allen College students and faculty are involved with colleagues across campus in numerous VIP projects, including ones examining the intersection of art and AI, linguistics, and the interplay between sports and community transformation. 

You can learn more about VIP programs that are a good fit for Ivan Allen College students at the VIP website

The School of Literature, Media, and Communication; the School of Modern Languages; and the School of Public Policy are units of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. 


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