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Ray David

Ray David is a PhD candidate in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Ray received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Purdue University – West Lafayette. Ray has experience as a Civil Engineering consultant focused on the design of water and wastewater treatment facilities. More about Ray...

The GPP experience has shown me that interdisciplinary research has a long way to go to gain overwhelming acceptance in Switzerland and the United States. While the experiences of students in higher education within these two countries may vary a great deal based upon educational structure, ideas of collaboration versus competition, and support within higher education…Ray

The overarching topic of this year’s Global Perspectives Program (GPP) was contemplating the accountability and relevance of higher education in today’s time and within the context of current economic, educational, and global climates. A hallmark of higher education is tackling and answering universally-relevant questions. Areas such as cancer research, engineering, psychology etc. would be better equipped to answer pressing questions that require a diverse set knowledge with a diverse assemblage of researchers.

United States’ higher education seems to promote interdisciplinary research with initiatives such as the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program (Borrego and Newswander 2010). As an advocate of and a student involved in interdisciplinary research, I wanted to investigate the perceptions of interdisciplinarity in Switzerland and Italy. Additionally, I hoped to observe how the implementation of interdisciplinary methods are introduced and used in the various higher education institutions that we visited.

Effective communication as a precondition for interdisciplinary exchange

In preparation for this experience, I examined some of the common views that are found within the United States’ higher education system with regards to interdisciplinary research. One issue that is evident for those of us who have worked with others outside our field is effective communication. As students and researchers, we are commonly surrounded by like-minded individuals where jargon is appropriate and where most of the people you interact with have a strong idea of your research or area of study. But once, we step outside of our niche areas, the phrasing and language we use can make communication challenging. Effective and successful communication between disciplines requires an awareness of disciplinary limitations and the ability to reduce terminology and concepts to a basic level (Bracken and Oughton 2006). Interdisciplinary research should not be thought of as an affront to disciplinary-specific studies. It should be considered an opportunity to reach across the aisles and provide useful knowledge to those in other disciplines. The objective of achieving effective interdisciplinary communication is not to have a single, common interdisciplinary language because it may dilute the important disciplinary strengths that are inherent within each specialty and developed over several decades (Bracken and Oughton 2006). What is required is an understanding that dialects, backgrounds, and metaphors will need to be adjusted by all parties to communicate appropriately and clearly. The issues with communication have been identified as the most difficult hurdle to overcome when attempting interdisciplinary research (Qin et al. 1997). And a confounding factor with respect to those involved in GPP is the additional hurdle of native language.

Motivation to work together towards a common goal

While there are difficulties to overcome in many instances, the passion and desire to connect with someone makes the additional effort worthwhile. A strong passion for the research and the questions being posed provides additional incentive to put in the work to understand the new terminology and seek out expert collaborators. The GPP cohort reminded me of my first meetings with researchers in my group. The personalities, backgrounds, and personal research foci varied, but a common goal brought us together. In my research group, it was understanding the airborne transmission of diseases; in GPP, it was exchanging information about higher education and the experiences of individuals with different perspectives. So while it takes repetition of terminology and rephrasing of traditional jargon in both instances, the end goal was important to all participants. As such, the potential breakthroughs of interdisciplinary research usually outweigh the additional effort required to find common communication ground.

Structural preconditions of education systems shaping interdisciplinary perceptions

While communication remains paramount in creating and strengthening interdisciplinary relationships, our education does a great deal to facilitate the exchange. Even before our trip to Switzerland and Italy, the Virginia Tech GPP cohort was fortunate to spend time learning more about these educational systems. And in doing so, it was possible to see clear distinctions between the United States’ educational system. The cantonal setup of the Swiss system is different from the combination local, state, and federal blend of US public schools. One of the traits of the Swiss system I found unique was that following primary schooling, a bifurcation occurs where an individual’s career goals and abilities result in distinct paths. On one path, a group of students continuing secondary schooling feed into the university system while other students are educated along an apprenticeship path where practical education is supported with accompanied schooling. I found this training to be in contrast with the United States’ educational system that focuses on a broad educational model from elementary school, middle school, and high school. The first divergence of students toward a specific focus tends to occur when entering the higher education arena.

These differing educational models may result in different perceptions of interdisciplinary research. A Swiss student’s opportunity to focus on their areas of interest earlier would allow them to become proficient before students in the United States. And the broader topics covered in the United States educational system may provide usable knowledge in many areas but would not provide the same level of depth found in the Swiss system. In both cases, a path towards interdisciplinary collaborations is attainable. A student that matriculates through the Swiss system will obtain the aptitude and skillsets necessary to become authorities within their field early on. As they continue to research and pose important questions, they may naturally gravitate towards other researches in neighboring fields to provide a novel perspective. A student that receives their education in the United States may require additional time to become an authority within their field, in comparison to a Swiss student, since specialization does not occur until later within the system. But the prospect of interdisciplinary approaches may be easier to recognize because the breadth of their background allows them to identify common ground in a variety of fields.

Need for global interdisciplinarity

The benefits associated with interdisciplinary research tend to invite a wide range of researchers with varying educational backgrounds into the fold. Some of these benefits include leveraging the knowledge of various researchers’ to investigate topics that are inherently interdisciplinary such as environmental issues, effectively researching topics that are too complex to be housed within an environmental silo, and investigating a discipline-specific problem using an approach or protocol obtained via collaboration (Bruce et al. 2004). With so many great researchers and resources around the world, the ability to answer important questions with a global team and answer pressing human and environmental questions is exciting. Research areas that involve environmental issues are an example of a prime interdisciplinary opportunity. Because of the immense complexity inherent in the environment, it is difficult, if not impossible, for one researcher to answer relevant research questions. And with the diversity of the environments around the world, a team would be required to examine the various answers for each of these locales. The ability to collaborate with these experts and answer these questions remains a strength of interdisciplinary research.

Changes and challenges for interdisciplinary research

I found that interdisciplinary research in higher education is important to those within both the United States’ and Switzerland’s systems. Similar to NSF’s IGERT program, the European Union created the Fifth Framework Programme in which a component was to increase interdisciplinary research through the use of problem-oriented approaches (Bruce et al. 2004). Some of the issues identified as barriers to interdisciplinary research include a concern of younger researchers with respect to the tenure process, a concern that other researchers within their discipline are not enthusiastic about interdisciplinary research, and a concern that it will be difficult to publish the work in high impact journals (Bruce et al. 2004). And while work has been done to make these hurdles more manageable, there is still some risk associated with interdisciplinary research. I found by talking to students and faculty in the various universities in Switzerland and Italy that the view on interdisciplinarity is similar to the view in the United States. There is still a tendency to remain within a singular discipline for the majority of a student’s matriculation with brief instances of outside-department collaboration. In Switzerland, University of Basel’s Rector Antonio Loprieno mentioned that the Swiss educational system highly values collaboration which may aide in developing a collaborative mindset and interdisciplinary partnerships. This mindset of collaboration over competition is necessary when partaking in interdisciplinary research. Because interdisciplinary research is still within its developmental stages and due to the concerns listed above, the incentives of interdisciplinary collaborations do not outweigh the effort for some (Carayol and Thi 2005). Due to the riskier nature of interdisciplinary research, there are concerns that delays in research progress and challenges of finding suitable journals for publication are expected compared to discipline-specific research. Additionally, with tenure and promotion decisions decided within a department in most instances, there remains a need by many to remain highly productive within their discipline-specific journals.

Conclusion

The GPP experience has shown me that interdisciplinary research has a long way to go to gain overwhelming acceptance in Switzerland and the United States. While the experiences of students in higher education within these two countries may vary a great deal based upon educational structure, ideas of collaboration versus competition, and support within higher education, there still remains barricades to overcome until acceptance of interdisciplinary research is accomplished. Higher education in Europe and the United States remains catered toward discipline-specific progress. Issues such as promotion, publishing, and high risk research make it difficult for many researchers to make the leap. But with the advancing globalization and ever-present complicated research questions, the need for interdisciplinary collaborations will continue to increase.