Advancing Technology Through Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration

05/27/2011 12:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

The research of Richard Taylor, published in the May 2011 issue of Physics World, underscores the transformational advances in technology, science, and medicine that are possible through cross-disciplinary collaboration and interaction. Dr. Taylor's title speaks for itself: Professor of Physics, Psychology, and Art at the University of Oregon.

The introduction to the article -- titled "Vision of Beauty" -- states:

"As sensors in digital cameras fast approach the 127 megapixels of the human eye, clinical trials are under way to implant this technology directly into the retina. But Richard Taylor cautions that such devices must be adapted for humans, because of the special nature by which we see."

As Professor Taylor explains: "

The differences between camera technology and the human eye arise because, while the camera uses the Euclidean shapes favoured by engineers, the eye exploits the fractal geometry that is ubiquitous throughout nature. Euclidean geometry consists of smooth shapes described by familiar integer dimensions, such as dots, lines and squares. The patterns traced out by the camera's wiring and motion are based on the simplicity of such shapes - in particular, one-dimensional lines and zero-dimensional dots, respectively. But the eye's equivalent patterns instead exhibit the rich complexity of fractal geometry, which is quantified, as we will see, by fractional dimensions. It is important that we bear in mind these subtleties of the human eye when developing retinal implants, and understand why we cannot simply incorporate camera technology directly into the eye. Remarkably, implants based purely on camera designs might allow blind people to see, but they might only see a world devoid of stress-reducing beauty."

Professor Taylor's solution, as Rebecca Boyle writes in Popular Science,

"is to embed a nanoscale clump of material onto the photodiode, which would self-assemble into fractal shapes. The clump would be deposited onto a photodiode using an inert gas. Eye surgeons would implant the fractal-enhanced devices inside the eyes of patients who have lost their vision, and the improved neuron interface would enable more light information to be relayed to the optic nerve... This summer, Taylor and doctoral students in his lab are starting a year-long project to study the metals to be used for fractal assembly. The researchers will look for metals with strong biocompatibility and efficiency, among other attributes."

According to the University of Oregon, "The idea for the project emerged as Taylor was working under a Cottrell Scholar Award he received in 2003 from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement." The Cottrell Scholar Awards are presented by Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the foundation that I lead, to recognize outstanding early career scientists in the physical sciences: astronomy, chemistry, and physics. They recognize leaders in integrating science teaching and research at leading U.S. research universities.

Earlier this month, RCSA named Professor Taylor and a colleague -- Darren W. Johnson, Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oregon -- as Scialog® Fellows, awarding them an additional grant of $250,000 to study the "role of fractal patterns on new materials for solar energy applications: inorganic clusters, films and fractal geometry simulations." This grant award was made as part of RCSA's Scialog initiative, a major new research program. This multi-year grant initiative accelerates the work of 21st-century science by funding early career scientists to pursue transformational research, in dialog with their fellow grantees, on crucial issues of scientific inquiry. Focused, in this round of grants, on solar energy conversion, Scialog prizes cross-disciplinary collaboration and its role in transformational research.

It's always exciting to see the extraordinary research that RCSA's grants can engender, and the opportunities for students to participate. Especially exciting in Professor Taylor's case is the cross-disciplinary collaboration and interaction involved. With his retinal research, it's easy to understand the collaboration between medicine, ophthalmology, and physics. What's more intriguing is the connection to art.

As Professor Taylor wrote in Science:

"In 1994, I took a year off from science and attended the Manchester School of Art to paint and study art history. While writing a dissertation on Jackson Pollock, I realized that his drip-painting technique could be similar to the way nature builds its fractal scenery. I began to view the artist's drip paintings as experimental patterns and thought about ways to measure their fractal content by adapting the analysis techniques I had used to investigate fractals in electronic devices."

That's where collaboration really gets interesting: when it involves cross-fertilization that is not intuitive. Who would have thought that Jackson Pollock would have anything to do with retinal implants?

There are important lessons in all of this for researchers, policy-makers and grant-makers. Cross-disciplinary collaboration should be encouraged in efforts to promote transformational research. It's often fundamental to it. And that collaboration should not just be in the fields of obvious connection.

The University of Oregon was brilliantly visionary in creating a professorship in Physics, Psychology, and Art. We may well see better in the future as a result.

James M. Gentile is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, America's second-oldest foundation, founded in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.