Introducing the SSN Interdisciplinary Experiences series

Welcome to the SSN Interdisciplinary Experiences series! Every Tuesday morning over the next four weeks we are featuring a new post about the joys, challenges, origins, insights and advice of four SSN grant Chief Investigators . Based on a series of interviews , the posts showcase great range and diversity, from sensor wear that facilitates teaching phys-ed (Dr Natalie Lander), to researching Covid-19 surveillance whilst it is underway (Dr Monique Mann), the ethics of producing wearable thermometers (Dr Negin Amini) and ‘good’ collaborative fire management research (Dr Timothy Neale). The imperative of a truly interdisciplinary problem comes through in each conversation.

As readers will observe, perhaps the most luminous thread across the interviews is related to the labour involved in collaborative work. Collaboration requires an attentiveness to gaps, silences, and alternatives – what Dr Lander calls “research with soft edges”.  However, articulating the stakes of your own expertise is challenging and critical work. Research in ‘living landscapes’ makes a self-awareness of how you research critical to project success (Dr Neale). This self-awareness flags an ethical responsibility to interlocutors, as in the challenge posed to Dr Mann when they had to interview frontline contact tracers who were under intense pressure. In the digital surveillance project, both the pandemic and collaboration across disciplines required a tempered approach to privacy rights. For Dr Amini’s team, the ethical quandary came immediately after her question: they could create a wearable thermometer but, as her team explored, this didn’t mean they  should. Their collaboration led to an altogether different intervention.

Our grantees share practical advice in each conversation. We learn that seeking collaborators can be hindered by a box-ticking approach. For example, you may find a sociologist ‘in disguise’ in a public health faculty or role, and you certainly gain much from workshopping with interlocutors beyond the academy early in your project. Networking remains crucial, (see for example, Dr Vicki Huang’s recent workshop and interdisciplinary networking project), but maintaining and looking after relationships in the long term is vital, as evidenced in the long timeline of Dr Lander’s project. Inevitably, interdisciplinary projects often change significantly, a challenge that requires flexible funding and support. We also see different levels and drivers of interdisciplinarity across projects – for example the wearable thermometers project saw quite distinct HASS and STEM expertise, whereas the Covid-19 surveillance one saw more field-or-topic related interdisciplinary responses to a shared concern. In terms of bushfire management, beginning with First Nations stakeholders, and working with academic researchers and government agencies was the key set of relationships.

The pandemic has both slowed down research and increased its urgency. Both Dr Mann and Dr Amini developed projects as a direct response to the pandemic. School closures have heightened the need for Dr Lander’s project by exacerbating unequal levels of physical skill for children. As is clear from the plethora of media articles on surveillance and bush fire management, researching a ‘live’ issue means increased opportunity to put expertise to public service. However, this offers a different set of challenges to a retrospective study, as we learn from Dr Mann.

None of our grantees reached their interdisciplinary team leader positions through a conventional or pre-planned route. For Dr Lander and Dr Mann, double degrees were instrumental, as was working in industry (teaching and for government, respectively) in terms of developing skills and unique perspectives. For Dr Neale, the subfield of Science and Technology Studies (STS)  was a departure point. For some, the rigidity of FOR codes make career advancement and reporting challenging. In spite of the difficulties in finding shared vocabularies and navigating a pandemic, we heard that the opportunity for EMCARs to assemble teams of experts and take leadership positions was highly rewarding. We hope this series will convey a sense of each grantees’ passion and rigorous craft.

Feature 1: Dr Natalie Lander’s Research with soft edges: Teaching and translation between a HASS/STEM divide” is now live

This SSN Interdisciplinary Experiences series has been produced by Carina Truyts.