David R. Montgomery is a geomorphologist at the University of Washington and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant for his research examining how landscapes change through time. So it may seem strange that he has written books about dirt, fish, and religion. But Montgomery uses geology as a base to explore topics that branch much more widely. “I try to wade into fields related to geology and use my knowledge to learn from them,” he says.
His wide-ranging explorations made him an excellent visitor to the Radcliffe Institute, where he first met with students from Harvard’s biology, geology, and history departments to talk about pursuing ideas across academic boundaries. “Students are very interested in doing interdisciplinary research, but we academics tend to focus narrowly on very particular things because that’s how you make progress,” he says. “It’s good for students to see that they can reach outside their own disciplines.....”
“The spaces between disciplines are very fruitful areas for research,” Montgomery says. “There’s a tension between the need to specialize in order to make progress and the desire to think broadly and synthesize. It’s a big issue across all academic fields. Yes, you should learn a discipline, but you don’t have to come from a discipline to synthesize it. You just have to be willing to enter as an intellectual observer and figure out what people in that field agree on.”