The future of innovation means casting a wider net — bringing disciplines together to explore the big questions

two scientists talking in the middle of a dark laboratory

Donna Paris

Education and research are evolving, and we’ve come to realize how important it is to hear not just from one voice but from many. At the forefront on campus: the Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society (ICHS). Health is one of many fields where looking at issues from different perspectives can help you better understand them and come up with novel and creative solutions. 

This kind of thinking is the cornerstone of the ICHS. It’s about offering students something to really think about by crossing boundaries, so they are better able to understand the issues, almost like looking at them through a wide-angle lens. “The strength of the ICHS is its interdisciplinarity,” says Len Tsuji, a professor at the centre. “To make a difference in health, you need multiple perspectives.” 

“To make a difference in health, you need multiple perspectives.” 

And to do that, you have to start by asking the right questions. “We want to have as many voices as we can around the table, not just because it looks good, but because it meaningfully changes the conversation,” says Jessica Fields, a health studies and sociology professor and director of the ICHS. “So that's inclusivity in the sense that we are making sure there are multiple voices, multiple perspectives and identity groups represented in the course materials that we’re offering.” 

Fields adds that by including a wide range of disciplines, the research can cover an issue from different angles. She uses disability as an example: “We have people who think about it through the lens of anthropology, and think about the narratives of disability. There are people thinking about the implications of disability for motherhood: When women with disabilities become mothers, what are the implications for them and for their children?”

Fields’ own research focuses on racialized and gendered discourses of vulnerability and risk. In studies of high school and middle school classrooms and jail-based HIV education, she explores the ways in which conversations can teach us about the relationships, identities and desires that people pursue. She also leads the Beyond Bullying project, a community-based storytelling project that challenges perceptions of LGBTQ sexualities and youth as problems, and considers what is needed to open up to the uncertainty, discomfort and pleasure of learning from and about LGBTQ sexuality and lives. 

Where do we want to go?

“It’s important to train the kinds of health professionals that we want in the future,” says Andrea Charise, a professor at the centre. Charise, who started Canada’s first undergraduate minor in Health Humanities at U of T Scarborough, has also had a productive career as a medical researcher. This interdisciplinary background has shaped her interest in the relationship between the humanities, health and medicine. 

“We want health professionals who are able to understand the big trends,” she says, “to understand the evidence-based medicine, the public health data, and how things tend to go across populations. But I also want healthcare professionals who are able to understand the particularities of my case, and how that varies from the trends of the data presented to us in terms of health knowledge. Having the ability to work on both those levels is really important and it’s worth this kind of future investment.” 

Often, there will be skeptical students in Charise’s classes. She understands this, she says, because of her own very typical pre-med undergraduate training. She’s well-versed in biology, chemistry, physics and organic chemistry, and now she’s at the front of the room talking about a different approach to health and illness — through an arts and humanities lens. Key point: this doesn’t mean cultivating hostility toward science. Charise jokes with students that if you’re having a heart attack you can recite as much poetry as you like or look at as much lovely digital art as you want. You will still need a doctor. “But here we are future-proofing our students with literacy as to the value of the arts and humanities,” she says.

But here we are future-proofing our students with literacy as to the value of the arts and humanities 

Many different approaches

Similarly, Cassandra Hartblay, a professor of anthropology at the centre, looks at disability as a category — a sort of cross-section — in ways that don’t align specifically with diagnosis. For example, some of the people in her studies have physical mobility issues, others have cognitive disabilities. “It’s quite mixed and based on the sort of life circumstances that bring people together,” she says. These circumstances include education, non-profit social services and municipally provided social services.

Right now she’s working on a research project based in Russia, looking at the category of disability itself and how to understand it in different global settings. “I’m interested in how people with disabilities form communities,” she says. It’s less about a particular medical issue and more about exploring how social and political conditions affect people in their daily lives. 

Hartblay has written a play based on transcripts of interviews with some of her research participants; it’s been performed as documentary theatre. “So the work becomes a way of sharing the research with the public,” she says. “But it's also an interesting way for me as a researcher to open up the research process.” 

Hartblay’s angle is totally different from that of Hilary Brown, another professor at the centre. Brown’s current research also focuses on the experiences of people with disabilities, but on a specific health issue: women with disabilities and prenatal healthcare. Brown’s research, along with Hartblay’s, shows two different modalities that are working, and that can really speak to each other in terms of representing how people with disabilities experience discrimination in social life and in healthcare. 

Having access to all of these approaches gives students a tremendous leg up. And, at the ICHS, even a single professor can bring various perspectives. For instance, Obidimma Ezezika teaches science-based courses, such as Infectious Diseases; policy-based courses, such as Food Security and Food Sovereignty; and courses that are interdisciplinary in nature, such as Global Health and Human Biology, which are more relevant than ever with today’s focus on global health. And students get the benefit of research contributions, as well. Ezezika, for example, has published a global health textbook, created the Health & Innovation Lab and even developed interactive educational board games.   

On its website, the ICHS bills itself as home to Canada’s new generation of health change-makers. “And people in the department really do take that seriously; it’s not just marketing,” says Maureen Murney, a lecturer at the centre. Murney, who holds a PhD in anthropology, has focused her research on gendered issues related to mental health and substance use. All of this is very timely. “Each of the faculty members are doing something quite different,” she says. “All are doing work that’s very timely and, if not applied, then at least applicable.” 

Murney, who has always tried to ensure that her work is directly applicable, brings a holistic approach into the classroom. “I try to stimulate dialogue, encouraging the students to critically evaluate research, to really challenge ethnocentric or gendered assumptions.”

I try to stimulate dialogue, encouraging the students to critically evaluate research, to really challenge ethnocentric or gendered assumptions.

Think about it this way: “If any single discipline or way of practising was going to solve our problems, they wouldn't be around still,” says Suzanne Sicchia, a professor at the centre. “I think it’s going to take a much more interdisciplinary approach to address the world’s health problems.” 

Sicchia credits the students themselves for the great work that is happening at the ICHS. “The students are really bringing it to life. They are doing majors in all sorts of things, so the wisdom they bring to the program from their other programs is wonderful. It enriches the classroom.” And the students benefit too. “Literally, they go from one professor referencing Virginia Woolf to a biology or environmental science course,” she says. “It’s really incredible. They’re learning to think deeply and critically beyond each discipline.”

This year, Sicchia herself has partnered with the TAIBU Community Health Centre in the Malvern neighbourhood. “Their mandate is to improve black health, and I have a research project helping them to develop indicators around their Afrocentric model of care, which is completely unique.” She has also worked with TAIBU to design a course on violence and health — a fourth-year course that looks at structural conditions such as poverty, which creates inequities. 

Sicchia describes the partnership with TAIBU as “spectacular” and as one that makes sense because of the approach the ICHS is taking in interdisciplinary education. “I think we are going to need really innovative leaders for tomorrow — and I think we can help do that.” 

I think we are going to need really innovative leaders for tomorrow — and I think we can help do that.