As Dr. Sunday Makama, Chief Veterinary Research Officer at the National Veterinary Research Institute in Nigeria, will attest, breaking down barriers is part and parcel of successful research – whether between disciplines, nations or hemispheres. Collaboration of this kind has become essential, both in terms of answering the challenges of the modern world and in building a successful research career for yourself.
For Sunday, that interdisciplinarity defined his research career from the start. Having completed his bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine, he pursued a master’s degree in food safety, investigating the possibility of nanomaterials leeching into the food we eat. For his PhD, he looked at the environmental risk assessments of nanomaterials, followed by further research into how environmental health affects food security.
Currently Sunday conducts research into food/feed and environmental health and safety, toxicology, drug and chemical use, residue and antimicrobial resistance (AMR). He is also involved in drug development (alternative antimicrobials), development of alternative testing strategies (in vitro techniques) and new research methodologies for prevention and control of (re)emerging diseases of livestock and poultry, and improving vaccine production. He participates in technical and stakeholder work groups, compiling policy advice on disease prevential,diagnosis and control to relevant authorities.
“I would often get asked, ‘Why on Earth is a veterinarian looking at food safety?’ but do you know how many zoonotic problems are food related?,” Sunday asks, referring to diseases that transfer from animals to people. “It’s something like 70 percent. And of those, how many are related to animals you can treat? About 80 percent. So who better to study food safety than a veterinarian?”
As Sunday points out, the traditional view of the veterinarian is a woman or a man in a lab coat treating pets, but in an environment where humans and animals are intertwined, the role can be quite different:
We’re more connected with animals and the environment than we think, and that opens a lot of opportunities for me to be trained in various fields that are relevant to my research.
Indeed, Sunday currently works as a toxicologist at the National Veterinary Research Institute. That organization has a mandate to investigate all aspects of livestock production and health, which covers everything from wildlife conservation to livestock production and health.
“We’re one of the few laboratory facilities in Africa that actually manufactures vaccines, so that’s a clear instance of where the discipline comes up against public health and food security,” he explained. It also means keeping abreast of new technologies, such as nanotechnology, as a way of developing more effective and efficient treatments.
In that way, Sunday’s life as a researcher involves moving from one discipline to another, following the common threads related to his overall goal, weaving in whatever knowledge is necessary from each area of research. For him, it’s something every researcher should expect to embrace as part of doing research in the 21st century, as collaboration – between disciplines, between countries – becomes more deliberate and necessary.
“It’s not like that collaboration element has never been there before, but what’s come to the forefront in recent years is that people are beginning to realize the need for us to collaborate and cooperate,” Sunday said. “You may have a different perspective depending on which side of the globe you’re on, but in the end, we’re all looking to improve the quality of life, and people are starting to appreciate that’s not something you can solve with one simple approach.”
However, Sunday draws a distinction between multidisciplinary research and interdisciplinary research. The former happens a great deal; he refers to how you might turn up to meeting for a research project and find several experts from different fields. All these people might be looking to contribute something towards meeting that challenge, but those experts from different fields might still only look at the problem through the lens of their own discipline.
“What’s missing is how to interrelate the overall strategy in an efficient manner,” Sunday said. “If we’re going to resolve problems faster than we do now, we need researchers who are able to approach the solution holistically, who don’t just work in teams with people from other disciplines, but who really understand how the disciplines interrelate.”
One of the tools Sunday uses is Mendeley, Elsevier’s free reference manager and academic social network. Sunday sees as an enabler of interdisciplinary research:
Through Mendeley, Elsevier provides a platform that’s accessible to everyone and allows people from different parts of the world to engage in real time, at the same time. Whether it’s manuscripts or proposals, it’s a good thing the world can benefit from.
Sunday was so impressed with Mendeley that he became a Mendeley Advisor. Mendeley Advisors are a group of 5,000+ Mendeley lovers in 130 countries, who help us to get the word out about the benefits of good reference and research workflow management. (Learn more here, including how to become one). Sunday's involvement was prompted by the desire to help others’ benefit from what Mendeley had to offer:
I like to think I’m called to teach. One of the things I have a passion for is not just to gain knowledge, but to share knowledge. Mendeley helps do that.
At the start, I wasn’t sure how efficient it would be, given that it’s freely available, but it exceeded my wildest expectations – it’s not just a reference manager, it’s about the statistics it gives you, the recommendations and the tools to work together.
In terms of sharing knowledge, Sunday also has some advice for researchers regarding the importance of collaboration. He uses an analogy of a fish stuck in a well that starts to think the whole world revolves around that well. If that fish ever gets out into a river, or an ocean, it starts to realize how limited its worldview was and how much greater the opportunities are outside.
A researcher might be doing some great things and finding some great results, but if you keep within your ‘well,’ the true impact will be limited. If you have something to offer, don’t limit yourself. Give your work the opportunity to deliver its full impact – take the risk and swim out into the ocean. In the end you’ll be better for it, your colleagues will be better for it, and I guess people around the world will be better for it.