Colliding worlds, i.e., Interdisciplinarity: Navigating the new normal of research

    Posted on Friday, Sep 27, 2019
    This title for the blog came to me when my flatmate, a new Ph.D. student in the materials science and engineering department, was talking about how it was difficult for him to cater to the fundamentals of materials science. The immediate question was ‘what are the fundamentals of materials science?’. As I mulled over the question, I came to realize that there was not one but many fundamental fields that govern materials science and engineering. If you are into synthesis, you need to know organic chemistry; if you are into application you need to know mechanics, then there is nanomaterials which is another different world. Speaking of nanomaterials, you should certainly read about the blackest materials in existence, Vantablack and another recent new research by MIT scientists (yet to get a cool name). Coming back to the conversation, once I mulled enough over the above question, I realized that even my field of research, Environmental engineering, is also a mixed bag of fundamentals. The more I thought about it, more it became clear. Worlds are colliding, and the interdisciplinarity is the new normal of research.

    The next question, ‘what is the consequence of this phenomena?’. First, cool new research avenues have opened, and world is seeing solutions to problems in never imagined ways. Second, which is more the topic of this article, putting students in unchartered territories, however, before we delve further, it would be unfair not to give you a glimpse of the cool and amazing world we are in for. There is a material called nitinol; it’s an alloy of nickel and titanium. What’s cool about it is that it has memory of its shape. It can revert to its original shape once the force causing the deformation goes away. NASA is planning to use this material for the tires of its Mars rover to chart the rocky terrain. More such amazements are out there taking shape and numerous more yet to be explored. But before all that we, the researchers must learn to navigate our way through the aftermath of these colliding worlds.

    Navigating graduate life has always been a work in progress; everyone finds their ways of dealing with the unique challenges they face daily. And with this interdisciplinary research, the challenges have increased and have taken new faces. One of the common feelings of a new or old graduate researcher is a feeling called Imposter Syndrome, where we find ourselves questioning our belonging and our adequacy. And add to it the fact that in your interdisciplinary research field, you are not as well informed in some aspect as in some other. Things can escalate quite quickly. The feeling of inadequacy amplifies because you know for a fact that your knowledge is inadequate, and it's not just a passing feeling. A very good and apt advice about dealing with imposter syndrome is to understand that almost everyone goes through it and more often than not, you are not an imposter. However, in this new normal of colliding worlds, the feeling of inadequacy is not entirely false, and the coping starts with that realization. I say this from a simple understanding ‘You would only look for other ways once you recognize that you are lost.’

    Okay, you have taken the first step, you have accepted your lacking, what next? Next is to separate the imposter syndrome from this lacking. You are still not an imposter even though you are lacking in something. You know what, if you don’t know organic chemistry, there is someone who does not know mechanics. So, the next step is realizing that you are not alone, yet again ‘a sense of belonging.’ That’s a common theme in dealing with tough situations; this is the reason we humans have come to be the social animals. We survive and thrive when we are in a community. Find your community, start with the person sitting right next to you in your class, he might be your labmate, your flatmate, a post-doc, and for sure go on twitter and find @AcademicChatter (the world becomes your community).

    You were lost, you were looking for ways, and now you have buddies to work with you. It’s time to navigate your way out or carve your path. There are few different strategies from here on, and you will have to find your best fit. But, don’t worry as there is no wrong choice since each makes you less lost so you can change and switch as and when you please. The goal is to find a way out; nobody will ask you how you did it. Maybe you can share your story later and help others find their way. It is very important here that just as all of us have our unique journeys to where we are today the strategies from here on forward would also be unique and what I elaborate here are by no means ‘the’ strategies. All I am doing is introspecting on my path and analyzing it from the perspective of a distant observer (wiser and older but not so much!).

    The lone survivor-Go Big or Go Home. This is the strategy of self-belief; you have made it here fighting all odds. You are here to make it; you did what was needed to be reach up till this point, and you are yet again ready to dig your heels in. At the end, it's your journey, you must walk it, the more you’ll own it the dearer it would be it you, and faster you’ll embrace it. But there is a pitfall, when you are treading alone you will find yourself in situations where going home would seem an easier option; however, don’t forget that your navigation started with building a community. Seek out, and the community would be your cheerleader in these moments of despair. One very important factor in this strategy is your academic advisor. You need someone who can tell you what the goal is because sometimes you need to know what gets your work done. Use your advisor as a beacon or a lighthouse to guide you in the correct direction.

    Buddy system-You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours. Sounds a bit weird, but the idea is to create a support group that is inherently designed to help each other progress. The group can be individuals who seem to be going through the same experience. This group can help quickly identify the key improvement areas and can work together to come up with solutions and way to move ahead. Another type of group could be a set of individuals who come together with different strengths and weaknesses, and while working in conjunction would help each other in overcoming their weaknesses — this kind of collaborative work that has become a common theme in today’s research. You will find many of your professors collaborate on interdisciplinary research projects with each bringing their expertise to the table. So, in a way, you are not only creating an environment of learning but also would end up forging life-long relationships that in your future careers may result in fruitful professional collaborations. One hurdle to this strategy is always the difficulty of finding the individuals; however, in my experience, these individuals are only a conversation away. While in grad school, you will attend various networking events; this is just another event. And, it is worth mentioning here, networking is a huge thing in grad school and for your next job, so go out there and seek out people for their strengths and share your strengths as well.

    Follow the leader-Be my guide, oh wise one. This is more based on observation than by experience. Nevertheless, it is an idea that stems from a term I have come to realize as the most defining in forging a successful career. The term is ‘mentor.’ I recently had a chance to attend a workshop about career development. There were some accomplished speakers, from Associate Deans to CTO of a billion-dollar company. And one thing that was common theme to all them was that they all had a mentor. The earlier you identify the right person to be your mentor, the faster your growth would be. Now, I am certain of a question that will pop-up, how to find a mentor? I asked the same question in the workshop, and the answer was seeking out the people who you think would make a great mentor for you, email them, knock on their doors. You are seeking them out for help, don’t be shy, if they are to be your mentor, you will have to do that often, you cannot start by being hesitant. If nothing else, think of it as another networking event, did I not say that in grad school, networking is huge.

    Some final words. The most important thing in all these strategies is to inculcate in oneself the feeling of belonging and self-belief. The above mentioned are just some ways that I could come up with, you are free to find your ways but keep in mind that you are here because of your strengths, and many of these were not strengths, to begin with. The theme of my life is ‘embracing life as it unravels’ and always say to myself, ‘you got this!’. All the best and have a great journey.

    ---Kunal Gupta
    Kunal Gupta is a Ph.D. student in the Department of civil and Environmental Engineering

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