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Interdisciplinary Research at its iBEST
Sometimes the best ideas are brewed over a simple cup of Joe.

Twenty years ago, two University of Idaho faculty members from different disciplines learned through casual conversation they shared a research interest in evolution.

The duo – Holly Wichman, an associate professor of biological sciences, and James Foster, an assistant professor of computer science – initiated weekly meetings to swap ideas and discuss each other’s work. Other colleagues joined them. Weekly roundtables over coffee turned quickly into groundbreaking collaborations in the laboratory – and one of the University’s leading examples of interdisciplinary research was born.

Known today as the University of Idaho Institute for Bioinformatics and Evolutionary Studies, or IBEST, the grassroots interdisciplinary research group has grown to include more than 25 faculty members and their students, postdoctoral scholars and research staff in biology, computer science, mathematics, statistics, physics, and chemistry—all working together to solve one of mankind’s greatest scientific puzzles.

“When you bring together people from different perspectives and backgrounds, provide a way for them to find a common interest and share ideas, and nurture those ideas, you can expect some pretty amazing things,” says Larry Forney, director of IBEST and professor of biological sciences.

From evolution of the ecosystem to genetics to evolutionary theory, teams of IBEST researchers are engaged in a broad spectrum of research activities. For instance, two of IBEST’s early members, Wichman (biological sciences) and Paul Joyce (mathematics), along with Craig Miller (biological sciences), are merging their expertise, resources and tools to better understand and predict how viruses evolve on a time scale relevant to human efforts to eradicate or control them.

“Real discoveries are on the boundaries of disciplines,” Joyce says. “At IBEST and throughout the University, we don’t simply look at problems as math problems or biology problems; we look at them as just problems, and we attack them from different perspectives to find the solution.”

Forney, who was awarded the University of Idaho 2011 Excellence in Interdisciplinary Research for his nationally recognized collaborative research investigating women’s reproductive health, says programs like IBEST create vitally important synergies.

“Science is a social kind of thing,” he says. “Researchers from different fields need a common place where they can come together to share ideas and explore new approaches to solve complex problems in a way that could never happen if they are scattered in buildings across campus.”

He envisions the Integrated Research and Innovation Center (IRIC) to expand on the success of IBEST and to further stimulate the interdisciplinary collaborations that are essential to a vibrant research community.

“Researchers who work together across disciplines can do so much more than any one researcher could accomplish alone,” he says. “That’s the magic of IBEST, and that’s the magic of what this new building could provide.”
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