Otger Campàs knows all about conquering language barriers.
As a native of Barcelona, he grew up speaking Catalan and Spanish. While an undergraduate at the University of Barcelona, he studied the elegant language of theoretical physics. He dabbled in cooking there, too, and heard about unconventional techniques like “spherification” and “culinary foams.”
In his postgraduate work, Campàs’ research exposed him to genetics and cell biology, fields with a vocabulary all their own. His interest in biophysics soon carried him to the Curie Institute in Paris, where he earned a Ph.D. and became fluent in French.
Over the years, learning the lingo has been a rite of passage for this interdisciplinary researcher.
Campàs, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), has found himself translating yet again: integrating biology into mathematics, explaining physics to chefs, and designing a curriculum to teach science to non-majors. And his English has sharpened along the way.
“In the beginning, the differences in language are always complicated,” Campàs says.
Interdisciplinary work presents two challenges. The first is literally a language barrier. “If you do not know the specific vocabulary of a discipline—for example, the names of the proteins, or what a cell is—it is very difficult to communicate with people working in it,” he says.
The second challenge lies in understanding what is relevant or interesting about a foreign field. Learn to appreciate the culture of biology, he says, and suddenly “you are able to think about the same problem from a new perspective.”