Beyond boundaries: Navigating the future with multidisciplinary research projects

Discover how interdisciplinary PhD programs are redefining research paradigms and creating a new era of scientific innovation.

In a world inundated by complex global challenges and new technology, practical scientific developments are no longer just envisioned and created within traditional research silos. The future of research lies in the dynamic intersection of varied fields, where the fusion of diverse expertise ignites innovation and drives significant breakthroughs. Therefore, to hit the ground running, PhD scholars must now consider whether a narrow speciality or cross-disciplinary PhD research project is going to better equip them to achieve their goals.

So, for the next seven minutes, embark on a journey through the pioneering landscape of multidisciplinary research, where boundaries blur, possibilities expand, and the future is shaped by those bold enough to navigate the confluence of knowledge and innovation.

The evolving landscape of PhD research projects and the changing face of academic pursuits

A virtual reality environment of a natural landscape symbolising the evolving nature of phd research projects
A virtual reality environment of a natural landscape symbolising the evolving nature of PhD research projects. Credit: QUT.

Throughout academia, a significant transformation is underway. Traditionally, PhD research projects and broader studies have been confined within the boundaries of a single discipline. However, as the complexities of the world’s challenges grow, a more integrative and cross-collaborative research approach has become increasingly necessary. So, as senior researchers increasingly participate in multidisciplinary projects, there’s much growth in opportunities for postgraduate students to build skills across several domains.

To be clear, interdisciplinary PhD programs are not about merely combining different fields; they’re about creating a synergistic environment where the sum of knowledge from various disciplines can allow researchers to address complex issues more effectively. Whether tackling climate change, advancing medical research, or driving technological innovation, the intersection of disciplines brings a richness of perspectives that single-discipline studies can miss.

This change is also driven by a growing understanding that today’s problems are interconnected.

Take the issue of climate change, for example. It’s not just a scientific concern, requiring ecological and meteorological expertise. Addressing climate change effectively involves economists for cost-benefit analyses, sociologists to understand human behaviour and drive societal change, and policy experts to develop effective governance strategies. A collaborative effort between these disciplines has been essential in creating comprehensive climate models, proposing sustainable economic policies, and implementing public awareness campaigns.

The development of autonomous vehicles (self-driving cars) is another great example. This technological breakthrough wasn’t just a feat for mechanical engineers and software developers. It required an intricate blend of expertise: computer scientists and AI experts to develop the machine learning algorithms, mechanical and electrical engineers for the vehicle design and sensor integration, urban planners to understand how these vehicles would interact with city infrastructure, and ethicists to address the moral implications of AI decision-making. The collaboration of these diverse fields led to innovative solutions for navigation, safety protocols, and urban traffic management. And while the challenges associated with introducing self-driving cars have yet to be entirely resolved, what has so far been achieved is undoubtedly monumental.

These are just two of the many examples of how expertise from several domains has come together to achieve great advances in our understanding and technology. And while there will always be a need for niche experts, there is also immense value in developing professionals and researchers whose expertise crosses boundaries. After all, it’s much harder to forge innovative collaborations or envision groundbreaking solutions when you lack a meaningful understanding of the potential contributions other fields could make. Without a comprehensive grasp of how diverse disciplines intersect and complement each other, it’s akin to solving a complex puzzle with only half the pieces.

The ability to see how the intricate knowledge of one domain can seamlessly dovetail with another’s is not just a skill, but a visionary art. And this is where the essence of interdisciplinary research degrees truly shines, as they cultivate an environment where the fusion of varied expertise isn’t just encouraged but is the cornerstone of scholarly and practical advancement.

From theory to tangible change – multidisciplinary research in action

Qut phd candidate nikka turangan and associate professor jennifer macleod, discussing the student’s multidisciplinary phd research.
QUT PhD candidate Nikka Turangan (right) and Associate Professor Jennifer MacLeod (left), discussing their research (2021). Credit: QUT.

While blue sky research is vital to gain new knowledge, ultimately, the true value of any academic endeavour lies in its impact on the real world, even if that impact isn’t felt for scores or even hundreds of years. Multidisciplinary research produces exceptional impacts – and not just at the highest levels. Here are some examples of how multidisciplinary research, at the postgraduate level and beyond, is shaping a brighter future for us all.

Pioneering digital landscapes in geoscience education with virtual geology

Imagine exploring the rugged terrain of Mars or delving into the geological wonders of Earth, all from the comfort of your classroom. This is no longer the stuff of science fiction, thanks to the groundbreaking work of PhD student Cael Gallagher and her colleagues in the Virtual Geology research group at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Supervised by Associate Professor Selen Túrkay and Associate Professor Christoph Schrank, Cael’s research is a key part of a larger ARC Discovery Project that blurs the lines between IT and geoscience. Creating virtual environments that are revolutionising geoscience education and research, and beyond, offers a shining example of how interdisciplinary research can transcend traditional boundaries to offer innovative solutions.

Geology is a notoriously challenging subject to teach at university. After all, astronomy students can view the universe through a telescope and chemistry students can conduct experiments in university labs, but geology teachers have to organise expensive field trips if they want to give their students hands-on experience in some of the most educationally useful locations. At least that was the case until Cael and her team began developing virtual geology field trips for undergraduate science students.

Cael gallagher educating a first-year earth science student using virtual reality equipment designed during her phd.
Cael Gallagher using a virtual geology teaching tool in a first-year earth science workshop. Credit: QUT.

These digital excursions not only enhance learning experiences but also make geology more accessible to a broader range of students, especially those who may not have a means of, or be capable of, participating in physical field trips.

And the applications of this research don’t stop at Earthly geology.

Another exciting aspect of Cael’s work is the creation of a virtual Mars surface. This project offers students an extraordinary opportunity to explore extraterrestrial geology, an experience that was once unimaginable outside of elite space programs. By harnessing the power of virtual reality (VR), this research is opening up new frontiers in both education and our understanding of the universe.

Cael Gallagher’s research is more than an exercise in digital world-building; it’s a pioneering step towards revolutionising how science is taught and explored and in inspiring the next generation of geoscientists. Her work demonstrates the immense potential for technology to benefit education, paving the way for more immersive and interactive learning experiences. And it also exemplifies how the fusion of two traditionally disparate disciplines, IT and geoscience, can enable multidisciplinary research that creates revolutionary solutions to problems that were previously thought unsolvable.

Fashion meets function – QUT’s revolutionary UV-sensing wearable technology

How many times have you been told to ‘slip, slop, slap’ to protect yourself from harmful UV radiation? Or maybe you’ve instead been told to limit your exposure during the hottest parts of the day, so you’re still getting some sunlight and therefore your body can still produce vitamin D. That’s not the easiest advice to follow though, if you don’t know how much UV exposure is too much. Especially since UV levels vary so much throughout the year across much of Australia.

Wearable technology is becoming more commonplace, and it could offer a handy way to monitor your exposure. But not everyone wants, or can afford, to wear expensive smartwatches and VR glasses, and single-use alternatives are neither cost-effective nor environmentally friendly. Thankfully, QUT is well on the way to resolving those issues thanks to a project spanning several traditionally siloed fields.

QUT chemists have developed a groundbreaking switchable dye technology. It enables the creation of products that change from colourless to pink after UV exposure. The real magic, however, lies in their ability to be reset using nothing more complicated than LED light.

These UV sensor dyes can be incorporated into 3D-printed pieces of jewellery, such as earrings, bracelets, and bag clips, making them easy to seamlessly integrate into the daily routines of everyday people. And because fashion designers are heavily involved in the design of these products, they’re actually super stylish. So, people aren’t going to reject them due to fashion concerns. And better yet, there’s the potential for people to be able to create personalised designs.

Sunglasses fitted with fashionable, flower-shaped, uv-sensing wearable technology.
Reusable UV sensor materials for smart, non-powered wearables. Credit: QUT.

At the moment, the dyes change colour quite rapidly, so the team is working on ways to adjust the speed of the reaction. Eventually, this wearable tech will be useful in monitoring UV exposure over time and signalling to the wearer when they need to seek shelter. There’s also the potential to create digital technology that can interface with the dyes to allow long-term monitoring of exposure.

Through this UV-sensing wearables project, QUT is not just bridging the gap between science and design but also crafting a narrative of innovation where fashion conscientiously converges with function. This fusion of expertise from distinct fields is setting a new standard in wearable technology – one that protects, informs, and styles, all in a single, sustainable package.

A person wearing a backpack fitted with a uv-sensing tag.
Nathan Boase is developing a new range of materials that can detect the UV radiation in sunlight. Credit: QUT.

Harnessing AI for wildlife – the game-changing A2O search engine

Imagine a world where the vast chorus of wildlife can be understood and preserved through the power of technology. This is no longer a dream but a reality being sculpted thanks to a collaboration between QUT and Google Australia, through their visionary A2O sound search engine. This AI-powered marvel represents a significant leap in environmental conservation, bringing together the realms of ecology and computer science in an unprecedented way.

Until now, researchers who record the sounds of the wildlife they’re studying had to manually sift through hundreds of years’ worth of animal audio recordings if they wanted to find matching or similar sounds. Now, thanks to A2O, they can upload a recording and AI will automatically match it to any recordings in its extensive database.

This is a real game changer for conservation because it allows scientists to more quickly and easily make connections between species and locations, saving thousands of hours of manual labour and opening opportunities for using recordings made by citizen scientists to widen the scope of ecological studies. As said by Professor Paul Roe, Head of QUT’s School of Computer Science and the lead researcher at the Australian Acoustics Observatory, “you have to understand the environment before you can protect it”. And A2O is now a powerful tool that will enable scientists to really get to grips with Australia’s ecosystems and protect them from threats like deforestation, bushfires, and invasive species.

Paul roe and danielle teixeira in a forest holding a solar-powered device.
Ecoacoustics research team Paul Roe and Daniella Teixeira (2023). Credit: Tony Phillips.

Through the A2O search engine, QUT and Google Australia aren’t merely bridging silos and innovating technologically. This collaboration marks a crucial step towards understanding and preserving our natural world, and it also demonstrates the immense potential of AI in contributing to global conservation efforts.

How to get started shaping tomorrow’s world through interdisciplinary research

A woman is presenting her research ideas to her interdisciplinary team.
Credit: Pekic/Getty Images.

PhD scholars have traditionally undertaken research in well-defined fields of study. And there is immense value in becoming an expert synthetic chemist or theoretical physicist or mathematician. Indeed, some of history’s most celebrated experts had very narrow focuses and never strayed into other fields. However, that’s not the only option.

As this research snapshot shows, scientists at all levels, including at the PhD level, are also developing incredible solutions through the vehicle of research that spans two or more fields. And actively seeking research opportunities that are intentionally designed to break down silos and blend industries is absolutely an option open to any budding researcher.

So, if you would rather not be limited to a narrow field of expertise, QUT offers an array of PhD research projects that will enable you to develop multidisciplinary skills, equipping you to make a significant impact on the world – not just a substantial contribution to the body of knowledge. So, stop dreaming and start doing. Check out the QUT PhD projects actively looking for students now.

Please login to favourite this article.