“Why?” asked moderator Dana Johnson, professor in the School of Business and Economics.
“Because it is fun,” said Associate Professor Nilufer Onder (CS). “And I gain clarity and great satisfaction by working within multiple fields, not just one.”
Professor Barry Solomon (SS) agreed, “I’m motivated to find innovative opportunities, and reductionist research as practiced by most single disciplines is too limiting and not as natural.”
Professor Ann Maclean (SFRES) cited examples where she has learned about different fields: geology, volcanology, biological sciences and environmental engineering.
Learning about other disciplines was just one reward, the panel concurred. Sometimes a little nudge is involved.
“We’ve been pushed together in some cases: electrical and mechanical engineering,” said Associate Professor Jeff Naber (ME-EM), and director of the Advanced Power Systems Research Center, which is interdisciplinary in nature. “That’s driven externally, to the benefit of both research and education.”
“People in other disciplines offer different perspectives,” said Assistant Professor Greg Graman (School of Business and Economics). “Considering trees, for example, as a commodity in a supply chain, has given me a different view of what I think I know a lot about.”
Maclean stressed the importance of applying research to the real world, “and we need to have the outcomes of various disciplines mesh together into a cohesive, workable solution. NSF and other external funding agencies are stressing interdisciplinary research. There are instances where a RFP [Request for Proposal] says you need this type of researcher, and I’ve picked up my Tech Directory and started looking.”
Associate Professor David Watkins (CEE) cited the institutes and centers that routinely bring faculty together, and Onder said working on a topic such as artificial intelligence is of great interest to students, too.
“I read Tech Today to see if there are any seminars that might have a topic for potential collaboration,” Graman said. “I’m looking for connections.”
The importance of working together wasn’t lost on the panelists.
Maclean said it broadens her research. Onder claimed that those not collaborating risk slipping behind. Watkins said his work becomes more applicable and more attractive to students.
Johnson sought any positive and negative experiences from the panel.
“It opens up funding opportunities and access to people and other resources on campus,” said Naber. “You gain access to hardware and instrumentation, and, with a higher functioning team, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
“It depends on who you are collaborating with,” Solomon said. “It varies, but does not always end up being positive.”
There are personalities to contend with, Naber agreed. That’s part of learning to work in a group.
“And people come and go,” Maclean added.
“Sometimes it’s semantics,” Watkins said. “The challenges of different languages in different fields. Even NSF once looked for a group that wasn’t ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘multidisciplinary,’ but ‘transdisciplinary,’ whatever that is.”
There are barriers, then, that the teamwork must overcome.
In addition to language, difficulties can arise from different statistical methodologies, not working in one’s field, and not necessarily having the same objectives. The panel also expressed concern that faculty may not be credited enough for interdisciplinary research.
“Junior faculty are looking for recognition,” Naber said. “They need to be rewarded. The credit needs to be shared, and they need to see that it is moving their careers forward.”
“How do you start doing interdisciplinary research and get funding?,” an audience member asked.
“Apply for a planning grant,” Maclean said. “We did that, met every week, were willing to see our original objectives change, and eventually our proposal was funded.”
A bigger question was, what to do in the long term, when there aren’t any funds, Naber said. “You look toward SFI [Sustainable Futures Institute] or involvement with directors of other institutes and centers. In Wood-To-Wheels, we are more focused, but we just haven’t gotten to that [long-term funding] level yet.”
Continual, long-term collaboration is important.
“With multiple team players, they can sometimes become too independent and not be viewed by the grant funders as ‘interdisciplinary research,’” Watkins said.
The panel offered advice to faculty, researchers and graduate students in attendance.
Be willing to do interdisciplinary research. Take classes outside of your field. Read more than your disciplinary studies. Review the topics at national and international society meetings to see what is being discussed. Network with your peers.
As for the future, Naber gave an example. “Intermodal transportation and electrical power generation will continue to merge,” he said. “And we are just at the beginning.”
“Sustainability will continue to be important,” Maclean said. “Almost every department on campus is already involved. The network is already built.”
And working together will become even more important. For example, Department of Energy grants nearly unanimously call for interdisciplinary research.
As the Tech researchers compete for their part of a continually shrinking pie, collaboration will be key.
by Dennis Walikainen, senior editor
Re-posted from Tech Today. See original article.