We are the bridge people

We heard from three GISER students who have recently graduated or are just completing doctoral programs about their collaboration experiences in interdisciplinary social-environmental research at ASU. Elicia Ratajczyk, an affiliate of the Center for Behavior, Institutions, and the Environment, from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change; Heather Fischer, now a postdoc at the School of Geographical Sciences & Urban Planning (GSUP); and Aireona Raschke, a member of the ecoServices Group at the School of Life Sciences, joined GISER members from across campus for a lunchtime panel with discussant, Dr. Chingwen Cheng, an assistant professor in The Design School who is helping to lead a new series of collaborative project courses involving CAP LTER, URExSRN, School of Sustainability, Center for Biodiversity Outcomes, and Biomimicry Center, among others.

The GISER core team organized the August 24th panel discussion with the goal of helping to set an agenda for GISER efforts to improve resources and opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration at ASU in the coming school year. (GSUP's Graduate Student Committee and GPSA provided lunch, thanks to the networking know-how and follow-through of panel moderator, Michelle Stuhlmacher.)

In the research environment at ASU, distinguished for its unprecedented interdisciplinarity, graduate students face choices between integrating multiple approaches within their own plan of research individually or collaborating with others who can contribute additional perspectives, skills, and knowledge to a given inquiry. Our panelists agreed that, on the spectrum of collaboration, everything counts: from hallway conversations to peer-reviewed publications with thirteen co-authors. There's no question that more extensive and ambitious collaborations require time-consuming coordination between team members. In an example Elicia gave, agreeing to be lead author can mean agreeing to integrate thirteen authors' different revisions of a paper. Or it could mean a clash of expectations about authorship and responsibility -- as Aireona pointed out, researchers in fields like hers wouldn't think of naming thirteen co-authors. It can seem easier to go it alone at first, but our panelists said time spent working in teams has eventually paid off for them, through building access to networks of people who can help in their research down the line. 

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Dr. Cheng said it's encouraging to see graduate students thinking and working collaboratively, because this is key to solving complex social-ecological problems in the real world. Coming from an urban design and planning approach, collaboration is critical not just between specialists and practitioners, but in participatory processes with stakeholders and community members. Elicia and Aireona both emphasized how working with locals at their field research sites provided essential expertise toward answering their dissertation questions.

There's a consensus that collaboration can produce more valuable research outcomes, but how much do we value the process itself? Are interdisciplinary students trained in collaboration skills -- or, is being a good collaborator just an inherent personality trait or something you have to learn by doing? According to Heather, based partly on conversations she's had on the academic job market, ASU has a good reputation for training effective "bridge people," i.e., those who know enough to bring specialists from disparate fields together. We have to be good at this, because as Dr. Cheng cautioned, not all parts of academia are as open yet as ASU, and we have to be prepared to explain our skill sets. Even funding agencies like the National Science Foundation, which has favored collaborative projects, may expect to see proposals with team members from classic disciplinary backgrounds. Explaining interdisciplinary skill sets is something GISER members end up getting a lot of practice doing. As Aireona said, if you find yourself in the role of the interdisciplinary person on a research team, you'll likely be a "bridge person," too -- putting your collaboration skills to the test as a translator between disciplinary specialists who don't necessarily speak the same language.