Why global challenges need interdisciplinary researchers, and how to become one

SSCP DTP students presenting at a workshop
Members of the SSCP DTP

Dr  Jonathan Bosch,  one year on from finishing up as a Research Postgraduate on the  Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP (SSCP DTP), shares his tips on how to be successful at interdisciplinary research.

As we face up to some of the toughest challenges of our age, the boundaries between the traditional academic fields – such as science, engineering, medicine, sociology, etc. – are blurring. Success depends upon the cross-fertilisation of ideas, collaboration, consensus building, validation and effective communication across many scientific disciplines.

For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, its most authoritative assessment yet, uses data from 6,000 independent studies and draws on expertise from across the academic spectrum. It considers everything from the severe impacts on ecosystems, human health and wellbeing, to the rapid and far-reaching energy system transition required to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Tackling global challenges is an interdisciplinary task and the next generation of researchers must be interdisciplinary experts. Having completed four years on a multidisciplinary-focused PhD training programme, here are eight things I’d have wanted to know from the outset:

Think big(ger)

Embarking on a PhD often means a gruelling programme of subject-specific learning and personal development. However, it’s just as important to take the time to look at the bigger picture, if only to better appreciate where your research fits in. Right from the start, consider the multifaceted nature of global problems and which different fields might have something to say about your specific problem. Throw your net as wide as possible when embarking on your first serious literature review. Sign up to a broad range of newsletters that might provide alternative perspectives, and stay up-to-date with developments in your own field by setting alerts on relevant journals’ websites. 

Ask stupid questions

You won’t be the first person (and you won’t be the last) to get lost in jargon at an academic seminar or conference talk. If you do, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s more likely than not that others in the room are wondering the same thing.

Learn how to explain your research succinctly

During the course of your PhD there will be occasions when you are put on the spot and expected to summarise your research; or have an opportunity to show off your work during a poster presentation or industry visit. Think about how you would sum up your research in a couple of sentences – and practice. The three-minute thesis competition is a perfect vehicle to get you thinking about how to explain your research concisely to a non-specialist audience. Participating in science outreach like the Imperial Festival will add another dimension; you’ll not only have to communicate your work to people of all ages, in the most engaging way you can, but you’ll also have the chance to practice again and again as the crowds come through.

4 students sitting around a table discussing work

Go to events that aren’t within your specialist field

A great way to learn more about related fields is by attending seminars and discussion events. Daytime seminars are a great way to tear yourself away from your monitor for a sometimes much-needed break. The regular student-led Changing Planet Seminar series covers a whole range of climate and environment-related topics, from climate finance to clean air in cities, and is the perfect way to hear from speakers in an informal setting.

How to get data and what to do with it

Today, there is a huge amount of ‘big data’ available – from environmental monitoring data sets from satellites, sensor networks and the like, to consumer devices such as smart meters. An ability to efficiently collect, manage and interpret these huge streams of data will stand you in good stead as an interdisciplinary scientist. The best way to approach it is always to start small. Take a subset, or even some dummy data, and play around with it using your preferred statistical or programming software tools until you feel comfortable working with the data.

Coding’s not for dummies

To get a real handle on all the data, a grasp of scientific computing is indispensable. This doesn’t mean you have to study computer science on the side, but the ability to manipulate data, run programmes, develop bespoke functions to speed up repetitive tasks, and even model building to road-test your hypotheses, will be an advantage. If you get stuck or lack the confidence to get going right away, start with a free online course, of which there are hundreds. Imperial also has an extensive suite of training courses, which your supervisor may be able to support financially. Of these, Python for beginners will give you a look at programming principles in an easily accessible and yet powerful programming language; Software Carpentry on the other hand is a crash course in getting more research done in less time, applying coding tools to your specific problem. 

Translate your findings

Think of different ways to communicate your research to the widest possible audience. If you can write convincingly about your work, getting published on a decent blog or outward-facing website will help disseminate your work, and give you the sought-after skill of writing about technical topics for a lay audience. Better yet, you could look for opportunities to put your technical competence to good use by contributing to a policy briefing through your learned society, a think tank or a policy-focused institute like the Grantham Institute. It will give you a new perspective about what areas of your expertise are important for policy- and decision-makers. Check out  this series of briefing paper, covering topics ranging from the role of biofuels in reducing carbon emissions from aviation, to understanding the  impacts of multiple stressors  on freshwater ecosystems.

Get organised, but don’t sweat over wrong-turns 

A PhD can be a daunting endeavour. Planning a strategy to keep focused, especially when things aren’t going so well, is invaluable. The key, in my experience, is to not worry about feeling unproductive or wasting time down blind alleys; in the end, every wrong turn is a learning experience. Nevertheless, there are a few productivity tricks worth following.

Despite the great flexibility a PhD affords, it’s useful to get into a routine and get into the habit of sitting down to focus at the same time each day – even if that is mid-morning over a coffee with office mates. Another effective way of getting things done is the Pomodoro technique. Pick up a piece of work you’ve been putting off, set a timer for 25 minutes and focus only on that task without distraction; take a 5 to 10-minute break; then repeat. You might find you get through a lot more in a few hours than if you had sat glued to your desk all day. 

So why does all this matter?

Some of the above advice may seems pretty obvious, but I hope I’ve given you a few ideas on how to both stay focused and explore new fields. If you can master an interdisciplinary approach, you will have both the perspective and creativity to create unique, impactful research, and an ability to work together with scientists from a broad range of disciplines. 

The SSCP DTP currently has two PhD studentships open for applications, Climate Science & Policy and Solving fuel cell degradation issues to achieve high efficiency combined heat and power generation. The successful candidates will be part of the SSCP DTP cohort, starting in October 2019. Find out more about the studentships.

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