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5x5: A Flexible Approach to Sparking Serendipity

Circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms, the focus of one of the 5x5 groups, are the physical, mental, and behavioral changes in most living beings that follow a daily cycle.

Last year, the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) launched a new initiative that set out to lower the barriers to working across disciplines.

“We wanted to give people a space for interdisciplinary discussion that could fit into the variety of work environments and schedules we have across campus (qualitative research, laboratory, clinical, professional),” said Jennifer Gunn, Ph.D., director of IAS and associate professor in the Medical School’s Program in the History of Medicine. “Most of us see and know people who are in our immediate environments and don’t have many opportunities to interact beyond our silos unless we actively seek them out.”

The 5x5 initiative brings together small groups of University researchers and off-campus community members from different disciplinary backgrounds for a series of meetings to explore a subject in a low-stakes, creative setting. The initiative, which will soon enter its second round, is the latest addition to a collection of programs that reinforce IAS’s mission as a University-wide center: to support interdisciplinary research, collaboration, and critical conversations.

At the heart of each 5x5 group is a topic of common interest, a set of readings, an activity, or just an idea. In fact, the whole point of the initiative is for it to be open-ended—to give participants a means to explore new ideas, make connections across disciplines, and learn about and appreciate different perspectives and research methods.

Like other interdisciplinary programs, 5x5 gives participants a taste for the possibilities at play when building collaborative relationships. What sets it apart, however, is that it tasks IAS with actually assembling the cross-disciplinary groups, not the applicants. That means those who want to participate in the program don’t have to worry about finding potential collaborators.

“People were happy and sometimes surprised to discover other people working on topics relevant for their own research or work,” Gunn said of participants. “Many were invigorated by getting a new perspective on their work from someone in another discipline or environment.”

Tuning into the Body’s Natural Rhythms

As part of the first round of the 5x5 initiative, which wrapped up earlier this year, one interdisciplinary team explored the connection between our health and our circadian rhythms—the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle and are continuously at work in humans and most other livings things.

According to the National Institutes of Health, our “biological clocks” can affect the circadian rhythms in our bodies and influence our sleep patterns, hormones, digestion, temperature, and other important bodily functions. When the biological clock runs fast or runs slow, it can lead to complications like sleep disorders, obesity, depression, and seasonal affective disorder.

The 5x5 team’s six members, whose expertise spanned the fields of nursing, medicine, wearable technology, and the history of science, technology and medicine, came together to discuss how assessing individuals’ circadian rhythms can play an important role in providing personalized health care and improving well-being.

Dr. Ruifeng (Ray) Cao, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical sciences at the U of M Medical School, Duluth Campus and a member of this 5x5 team, said people have known about the concept of circadian rhythms in some capacity for nearly 300 years (though the term “circadian” was coined more recently, by U of M professor Franz Halberg in the 1950s). While more than 80,000 publications listed on PubMed mention circadian rhythms, he said, they still play too small a role in clinical practice.

“Today, most circadian research is still for the sake of learning biology, but not about improving medicine,” Cao said. “We discussed a few ideas about how to improve this.”

Among these ideas were building an emphasis on chronobiology—the science of natural physiological rhythms—into medical education, potentially collaborating with Mayo Clinic to connect chronotherapies (treatments based on these rhythms) to common diseases, and conducting public outreach to spread awareness of circadian rhythms.

Cao said working with experts from other fields made it possible to approach the subject from many different angles.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration was especially interesting to me,” he said. “For example, we had a design expert in the group, and she showed us how to design products to monitor individual daily rhythms. We also had a bioinformatician, who showed us how to utilize big data from public databases.”

Moving forward, the group plans to apply for research grants that can keep the collaboration going, and may develop a course on chronobiology together. 

Participate in 5x5

Applications for the next round of the 5x5 initiative will open in early October, with a planned deadline of mid-December. A subsequent round will follow in early 2019.

Each 5x5 group will have the help of an IAS facilitator to get started and a budget of up to $1,000 for materials, lunches, field trips, or other expenses. Groups will meet about five times over the span of a few months. After, IAS staff can assist groups that want to continue meeting, develop a project or event together, make connections outside the University, or pursue other activities.

“We want to continue to have a mix of faculty, staff, student, and outside community members in groups, and expand our reach to bring in more people,” Gunn said. “We hope that this will lead to increased collaboration across the University, and give people a better sense of what interdisciplinary centers on campus can help them achieve.”

Learn more about the 5x5 initiative or contact IAS at with questions.

Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

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