Being a Renaissance Wo/man: Modern education, interdisciplinary research and a multidisciplinary life



An engineer-scientist-painter-sculptor-inventor? That is an impressive, if disparate combination and of course describes Leonardo Da Vinci. From religious art to human anatomy to bicycles, Da Vinci had rather multidisciplinary interests. He is the eponymous Renaissance man. Merriam-Webster defines a renaissance man, sadly with no equivalent definition for a renaissance woman but let’s assume they are one in the same, as someone who has “wide interests and is expert in several areas”. In Renaissance Europe, being an academic was not the sole propriety of the scientific discipline. Rather a rounded education resulted in great inventors also being master artists. Fast forward 500 years and this archetype is virtually unknown, what would such a rare creature even look like in today’s academic world?



in modern education…

The modern Renaissance person would learn about a variety of subjects, equally applying their interests in various scientific and artistic pursuits. Transferring this concept to North American post-secondary education, students would study sciences like chemistry, mathematics, biology but also perhaps theatre, art history and English literature. Not to mention the numerous other disciplines ranging from beer brewing to environmental archaeology. Though I would argue that one would be infinitely more interesting while consuming the products of the other. Basically this person would acquire at least a base knowledge in several different disciplines. This can happen, especially in universities like my own with a focus on interdisciplinarity, but is not the rule for the majority of academics (Castán Broto, Gislason & Ehlers, 2009).



…in academic research…

In academic research, there is a special application of the Renaissance perspective, namely interdisciplinary research. Defined, varyingly in sources, as collaborative examination of a research problem from two or more disciplines (Choi & Pak, 2006). In this concept the researchers are not themselves Renaissance men but rather they take a Renaissance-like perspective on the problem at hand. The goal is to understand the research question in a more holistic way (Choi & Pak, 2006). The problem with applying Renaissance ideals to research is it clashes directly with university structure. We become increasingly specialized through Masters and Doctorate degrees, limiting our perspectives but becoming experts in one particular field (Castán Broto, Gislason & Ehlers, 2009). In this current structure, understanding where another discipline may add to our research is complicated. Science has greatly evolved since the 16th century; modern technology is difficult to keep up with within my own field, let alone understanding the context of another discipline. Therefore to examine an issue from multiple perspectives requires immense time and effort (Lélé & Norgaard, 2005). Interdisciplinary research teams are just beginning to chip away at the possibilities.



…in academic life…

What about beyond the doors of the university? What does a “true” Renaissance man or woman look like? A quick Google search for modern renaissance men and women produces many actors and a few academics. The criteria seems a bit confusing as I think many would agree Justin Timberlake wouldn’t be their first choice. According to this quiz I am “Totally Renaissance”, I must be doing something right. In this category being a Renaissance person is, well, personal. What we consider to be different and interesting is up to the individual. Someone who loves jazz and molecular biology is as much “Renaissance” as someone who studies anthropology and has an active interest in feminist literature. In the classical sense, your interests should include some kind of art as well as science (“Renaissance man”, n.d.). Where those lines are drawn is up to you, no pun intended.



…as an ideal.

In the end, what ideal are we working towards by being Renaissance? Da Vinci was no doubt a genius, but is being a Renaissance wo/man a goal in itself? What inherent value is there in having multidisciplinary interests? With research the benefit is clear, we can see a question in new and potentially more accurate ways. From a personal perspective, having an interest in theatre, sociology and chemistry may help you approach your research in innovative ways and perhaps improve your life.

-Emily Rempel-

A self-described epidemiologist-pianist-film fan-amateur archaeologist-photographer-travel enthusiast-home cook-general geek-voracious reader-graduate student.



  • Choi, B.C.K. & Pak A.W.P. (2006). “Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity in health research, services, education and policy:  1.  Definitions, objectives, and evidence of effectiveness.” Clinical and Investigative Medicine, 29, 351-364.
  • Lélé, S. & Norgaard, R.B. (2005). Practicing interdisciplinarity.  BioScience, 55(11), 967-975.
  • Renaissance man. (n.d.) In Merriam-Webster online. Retrieved from
  • Castán Broto, V., Gislason, M. & Ehlers, M.-H. (2009). Practising interdisciplinarity in the interplay between disciplines: experiences of established researchers. Environmental Science and Policy, 12(7), 922-933.
  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452 -1519). (n.d.) Retrieved February 2, 2014 from

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