Interview #5 Dr. T.H. Smit

This interview happened on a very cold and gloomy day, over a cup of tea at the University Medical College. It was a maze of a place, and very cool. Unfortunately, the interview was a bit short for various reasons, but Dr Smit brought in some really cool insights into the question of interdisciplinarity.

Here is the interview:

So you work in Mechano-biology, is that right? Could you tell me more about it?

Yup, that is right. Mechano-Biology is the study of mechanics and forces in biology and biological processes like development, regeneration and repair, and degeneration.

What attracted you to this field?

I don’t know if it has established itself as a field yet. But my background is in engineering, I am an engineer by training, and I was very interested in medicine and I started studying mechanical engineering, there was no such thing as bio-medical engineering or mechano-biology at the time. So I got into this and got involved in orthopaedics, and within the field of orthopaedics, I was mainly interested in the action of bone on implants – the adaptation of bone due to mechanical stimulation. That’s how I got into this. From there, I also got involved in the development of structure and embryos and also diseases like osteoarthritis, which has a strong mechanical component. So for me, one thing led to another and I am here now.

Would you say your field quite interdisciplinary?

I went from doing engineering to mechano-biology or biomedical related field. I am mostly interested in the mechanics, and I deal with clinical cases sometimes like osteoarthritis, like the development of implants, and fairly often there’s a medical component involved.

Did you also have medical training to work with these clinical cases?

Oh, not really. Everything was on the job. I’ve been in this field, this medical centre since 1996. I’ve been walking around with clinicians, biologists, physicists and more. I’ve learned a lot from them

What kind of research are you engaged in right now?

Right now, I’m working on scoliosis, where does it come from, and Osteoarthritis – specifically the prevention; also development of the spine and, development and repair of the retina – the eye, and also organ collapse in gynaecology. Just to name a few.

How does your field compare to biophysics?

So, mechanics is a part of physics and it is also very close to biophysics. There are also physical ways of measuring things that we utilize – stiffness for example. Also, imaging processes that are important to us. A lot of medical physics goes into it as well. I use it more as a tool than something I work with directly.

How important is interdisciplinarity to your field and to your work?

I, of course, think it is very important. Well, I do feel that especially when I entered this field as a student, about 25 years ago – the academic field was very divided into different disciplines. You had technology at technical universities, medicine and medical universities, chemistry and sciences all separated in terms of teaching and research. You also can see that the most interesting views come from the boundaries of these fields. So, what you really want is to see if you can teach biologists about mechanics, for example. Currently, biologists know very little about mechanics, and we do know that mechanics plays a very important role in the development and in many other biological processes. The same is true for some medical professional as well, a lot of medical doctors don’t know too much about mechanics either. But on the other hand, if we use some implants for example, which is a technological thing, we need to know about the biomaterials and also about the interaction of these biomaterials. The cells are very sensitive to stiffness, to deformation, and we need to know that. These are things that aren’t looked into in traditional fields. I think interdisciplinarity brings in a lot of value to these fields and beings it forward.

Is there any advantage to having an interdisciplinary research-oriented programme compared to mono-disciplinary research?

I do see, of course, the development of interdisciplinary studies and I hesitate to say that this is the way to go. What I have experienced is that the mechanics I need in communication with biology or medicine are quite complex. So it is not homogenously linear materials, it is almost always time-dependent materials, poly-viscoelastic materials, so there are complex materials and there are complex ways of using them. In order to work in this field, you need to be a good engineer, and if you have not heard of the complex nature of these materials in your studies then it would be difficult to pick it up later. I tend to think that until your master’s thesis it is good to be a master of one subject and then work on something else. Moving on to on the job training after. For example, you can learn something about anatomy without having to teach you about everything else in anatomy. So you want to know the difficult things from the biologists and the medical people. Even within the technical fields, I still go to physicists and imaging people for advice. You need to combine two different experts in different fields to make it work.

Do you think going forward, the sciences are tending towards interdisciplinarity?

To do interdisciplinary work, you need specialists from different disciplines and you need some people who can connect them – someone who can talk with these fields. This is something I learned on the job as well, so I can talk with people in biomaterials who know everything about biomaterials. Of course, I don’t know everything they know, but I can communicate with them and understand the concept. Similarly with surgeons, of course, I don’t know about the surgery but I do know about the materials they use, and I can talk with biologists about the cell cultures and things like that. I am more in-between the fields. Even in mechano-biology, I have a lot of groups that I communicate with.

How does a working environment like the one you are in now, with the clinicians and researchers from various fields, help in fostering interdisciplinary research?

Oh, it helps very much. Practically every discipline is here, except maybe engineering. They aren’t very well represented here. But all the other disciplines around, and if you have any question you can easily connect with colleagues around. And, of course even at UvA. I also work with some people in the Physics department, working on 3D printing.

What can someone do promote interdisciplinary research? Is the environment here suited to interdisciplinary work?

I think it is important because the world isn’t divided into different disciplines. So, it is, of course, important to stay connected, but I think every discipline should have a certain number of subjects – say 10, 20% or so – where they should focus on interdisciplinary work. It would be very good to have combined (interdisciplinary) thesis – like a bachelor’s or a master’s thesis – to learn about other fields. It is very interesting to see how different people work on the same kind of problem together, like if you involve physics people, clinicians, businesspeople – all of them have different mindsets and time-scales for a problem. For example, scientists think of it in terms of PhD projects, for four years or something like that; the clinician has a patient, and he needs a solution on a much smaller timescale; the businessman thinks in terms of investment returns which is not a very long time but around three to five years. All of them think in different terms, so it is a challenge to get them together.

The environment could be even better, I think. I think that it would be good to have some more interdisciplinary persons working. What you see a lot in academia these days is people focusing on individual efforts. If you need to work in real life you need to be able to collaborate with other people, work with people in other areas, and view things from a different perspective. People don’t appreciate it that much, we all speak the same language – we all speak English, more or less – but all our backgrounds are different and we bring different perspectives into it. And just like learning about being an engineer, you can learn to think in a certain way too. It is important that you are aware of the limitations of how and what you are thinking. I think it is important to have those interdisciplinary projects in the curriculum of courses.

Finally, then, what is the best and the worst thing about your job?

The best thing would be being able to meet and communicate with so many people. It is intellectually challenging and so rewarding as well, to really learn from people from different fields.

The worst thing would be that it takes a lot to be an expert in that field, and that is why you need to be willing to collaborate with various people to gain that expertise. Also, it is difficult to become known in this sort of fields, so it gets difficult to get money for research and things like that.

Thank you for your time, Dr. Smit.

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