OSDAI Panel Summaries - Interdisciplinary Research
In November, 2018, the EHHD Office of Research Development (now OSDAI) hosted a panel discussion on the benefits and challenges of Interdisciplinary Research. This article summarizes key discoveries expressed by the five EHHD panelists: Selena Ahmed (Sustainable Food Systems), Jim Becker (Exercise Science), Bryce Hughes (Adult & Higher Education), Nick Lux (Educational Technology for Curriculum & Instruction), and Mary Miles (Nutrition & Exercise Science). The questions posed to the panelists were the following:
- How did you get started forming a team; what prompted your team to come together?
- What have you experienced as the opportunities, challenges and effective strategies in conducting interdisciplinary research?
- How do you conceptualize the interdisciplinary content of your projects, as well the processes of interdisciplinary collaboration?
- Each discipline has its own paradigm. How are different paradigms represented in your team and how do you manage differences of assumptions and research methods? How have those differences contributed to the team’s overall output? Is creativity increased? Or do transactional costs slow you down?
Mary Miles’ research team was focused on inflammation interactions with diet, exercise, stress, sleep, gut microbiome. It included faculty from biochemistry, agricultural ecology, immunology, food science, and microbial ecology. She has found that her team is effective when:
- It’s a win-win situation for the people collaborating; the team contributes to each member’s success.
- When new funding is obtained, the team/project lays out expectations in writing. These include publications anticipated and their schedule (each emerging publication should include all the team members); what each shares from the budget; and individual/teamwork responsibilities.
- Team members love the team/work enough to put up with people not quite meeting mutually agreed deadlines. Since everybody has too much on their plates, the team will be the higher priority for all if it’s clearly a win-win for each.
- The team enjoys solid relationships– they are key to mutual understanding.
Jim Becker’s team is with a faculty member in mechanical engineering who actually conducts research with a very similar disciplinary approach. They share interests regarding improved strength and mechanics of a patient’s feet and leg joints for improved health. That means they avoid some of the challenges interdisciplinary teamwork can encounter. Nonetheless, the lessons he’s learned include:
- It can challenge the team when students come from really different disciplinary backgrounds. For example, the engineering students know the math and computer science, and the health & human performance students know the kinesiology and anatomy.
- Both disciplinary backgrounds are critical to their work but they have to learn to communicate with each other and share knowledge. For example, an engineering student was writing a program to model the knee and the exercise science student had to make corrections to the model based on the real conditions and motions of the knee joint.
- Overall the team thrives because better outcomes can be achieved by bringing different backgrounds, but the process can sometimes be difficult.
Nick Lux has been engaged with two substantial interdisciplinary projects:
- How to use 3D gaming to teach spatial skills in upper elementary and middle school. While spatial skills are essential to STEM success, girls tend to lag behind boys in these skills. This team includes expertise in diverse student success, computer/electrical engineering, and physics.
- Developing an identity-based motivation framework in Engineering, using gaming to help students align with a future self, having achieved an established engineer’s identity. The team includes a chemical engineer.
Nick’s team found the following keys to success:
- It can be easiest to start with small internal and state grants. This has led to federal funding.
- Interdisciplinary work involves some risk-taking to develop relationships; the Center for Faculty Excellence and his writing group have proved great resources for identifying and establishing partnerships.
- Think through how the team will work together.
- Learn how to talk to each other across disciplinary differences. This can require backing up with assumptions and re-phrasing or providing the background of an assertion. It can be hard for people in one discipline to know how to explain themselves to those in another.
- Be sure to include the appropriate content experts on a grant, whether as team members or consultants. Reviewers will look for whether the team has a strong foundation of expertise for what you’re trying to do.
- Take advantage of the support available in the college for conceptual project development and grant-writing.
Selena Ahmed has been involved with multiple interdisciplinary teams. She has found team-formation can happen in at least three ways:
- Find a question you’re passionate about, and identify all the different components and lenses on the question. What methods are needed, and who has requisite expertise? For her team at Tufts, they sought to answer how climate change is affecting tea quality. She found that even if she had some level of expertise in all the required methods, the research would be more robust by bringing in partners with more rigorous training (e.g. chemists, or ethnographers or consumer scientists).
- Be open to joining in with somebody else’s question. For example she was brought into a water-food–energy nexus problem of how these dimensions are transforming in the context of climate change in the northern Rockies. The team’s leaders wanted to bring in a person focused on food systems and food security.
- Teams can form when you meet people with whom you have some synergy, and you find yourself having fun together. Selena’s teamwork with Carmen Byker Shanks emerged from discovering a shared research vision and enjoying working together.
Selena shared the following lessons from the variety of her team experience:
- It’s critical to choose team members you can work with well. She has found that fun is key to a productive and effective collaboration; it takes care of the challenges along the way.
- A challenge Selena encountered emerged from a critical evaluation of the second project above. After a brief pat on the back, reviewers provided 30 pages of advice about how to work better to make the research truly inter-disciplinary (interwoven around common questions) rather than multi-disciplinary (team members contributing their own components on a shared theme). Their team is now working on a conceptual model for how their individual datasets feed into each other and can be integrated to create new findings.
- In addition to its shared vision/mission and model of the project, the team should develop clear guidelines from the beginning regarding shared authorship and how credit is distributed. Communication and data management plans should also be spelled out.
- It doesn’t work well to try to form a team among diverse scientists looking for common ground (as in a professional meeting) in order to design a project. Someone needs to bring the passion to provide the center of gravity, and people need to discover they like being together before they think about forming a team.
Bryce Hughes found his own multidisciplinary background (undergrad in engineering, graduate training in education) lends itself to working with interdisciplinary teams. His undergraduate training creates a smoother journey into working with engineering faculty. One team arose from just a suggestion that Bill Schell in industrial engineering might share aligned interests and they should talk. So in chatting, tossing around some ideas, their mutual interests, converging around cultivating students’ leadership skills as a part of engineering identity, developed into an NSF proposal. His involvement with Nick’s 3D gaming team emerged from an invitation to bring his expertise to bear on a new problem arena. Bryce found his way into another team through one of the collaborators on Nick’s project. Shannon Willoughby’s team seeks to improve graduate students’ communication skills through stage presence and making the science more engaging to broader audiences. Bryce shared these lessons:
- Sometimes teamwork requires stretching beyond your comfort areas. When invited to Nick’s team, he wondered how he could contribute to a project focused on middle grades education rather than post-secondary/adult education. He chose to make a leap, recognizing the current push in education to think across the entire system (after all, you don’t become a different person when you reach college).
- It was equally important to develop a clearly defined role for the project.
- A key to his gelling with the team was that the project was fun.
- Look for good synergy that builds on your own research interests. For example, his are promoting diversity in STEM fields, and all the projects have provided good settings for addressing that, and specifically why differences matter.
- Be open to learning different language, and be prepared to educate others about how they might be perceived across the disciplinary boundaries.
- Be prepared to offer strategic “no’s.” A lot of times teams just don’t work and it’s best for all to “resign” early.
- “No”s can also be necessary part-way through a project if a key partner wants to change the research question or confound the variables or add a method. It’s fair to push back, remind team members of the original intent and agreements.
The diversity of projects and examples in this panel made for a rich set of recommendations. For example, work with people you like and can have fun with, and create projects that are win-win for all the team members. Clearly, all had positive experiences working with teams and saw value from integrating diverse expertise. But all noted that success requires real work to define roles and expectations and improve communication skills. A couple panelists also highlighted circumstances in which the best outcome for you may be to leave the team behind. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. It’s clear that for any given team, your personality has to fit the team and the project.