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A Conversation With President Knapp

President Steven Knapp

In this edition, we asked President Knapp about Nobel Laureate and new GW faculty member Ferid Murad, the relationship between research and teaching, and the importance of interdisciplinary research.

Q Nobel Laureate Ferid Murad joined the faculty in April. What does this mean for GW?

A Certainly the fact that someone of Dr. Murad's stature would choose to join our faculty is a sign of our growing prominence as an internationally recognized research university. But what especially impressed me about Dr. Murad, both when I first met him and later when he spoke at our press conference announcing his appointment, was his interest in combining his role as a medical scientist with the teaching of students—including undergraduates—across the university. As he eloquently explained, this was a key reason for his decision to move from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston to a comprehensive university.

That's what makes this appointment so exciting: Ferid Murad will simultaneously advance our research and enrich our teaching, while at the same time building bridges between medicine and other disciplines across George Washington.

Q Why is it important for faculty members at top-tier universities such as GW to conduct research while also engaging in high-quality teaching?

A To be honest, I have never understood why teaching and research so often get played off against each other in discussions of higher education. My own experience since the earliest days of my academic career has been that students are excited and inspired by the opportunity to study with scholars who are making fresh discoveries at the forefront of their disciplines. In fact, the excitement of discovery is contagious, and I have seen many cases where the experience of working with a great scholar opens a student's eyes to worlds she had never before imagined, often with life-changing consequences.

It's important always to keep in mind that, at a university like GW, research occurs in an extraordinary variety of forms. For instance, I see the remarkable work that someone like Frank Sesno is doing in our School of Media and Public Affairs as pushing the boundaries of journalism in a way that is very different from the work of a medical scientist like Ferid Murad. But I see the same excitement in the eyes of students who have the privilege of sharing either of those adventures!

Q We're hearing a lot about inter-disciplinary research. What is it and why is it significant?

A When we talk about "interdisciplinary," or "cross-disciplinary," or sometimes "multidisciplinary" work, what we have in mind is a wide variety of ways in which academic work these days crosses the boundaries of traditional fields. We are talking about economists who work with health experts on the rising cost of health care, or finance experts who work with international security experts on issues of global competitiveness. Some interdisciplinary work has matured to the point where it has given rise to new disciplines—for instance, biomedical engineering, neuroscience, or Africana studies.

Why is such work significant? Part of the answer is that our world has reached a level of complexity at which problems can no longer be solved by relying on the contributions of any single discipline. At the same time, the tools of research have evolved to the point where scholars can contribute to each other's work in ways that were previously impossible. That happened, for instance, when genetics and computing reached the point where it became possible for geneticists and computer scientists, working together, to decode the human genome. Here at GW, we have just launched a national search for the founding director of a computational biology institute that, among other things, will use the information contained in people's genes to develop treatments of diseases ranging from autism to cancer.

But perhaps the most important attraction of interdisciplinary work is that it enables us to ask new questions. Disciplines naturally tend to develop habitual ways of seeing that sometimes have the effect of closing the door to new lines of inquiry. The best way to break those habits is to see how someone from another discipline looks at the same problem. And students in a powerful research university can watch that happening in real time.

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