Symposium Shares Strategies to Support Interdisciplinary Research

Originally published March 27, 2015

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service

Psychologists, rocket scientists, musicians and an array of other specialists converged at The University of Texas at El Paso’s third annual Interdisciplinary Research Symposium this week.

Graduate students had the chance to share their research projects at the third annual Interdisciplinary Research Symposium this week. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service

Organized by the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects (ORSP), the symposium was geared toward addressing the challenges that researchers face when collaborating across disciplines. Faculty and student attendees raised a number of common issues, such as “People are generally dismissive of the arts,” “There are language barriers,” “There’s a lack of mutual respect,” and “It’s hard to communicate my findings.”

Keynote speaker Maura Borrego, Ph.D., admitted that interdisciplinary research can be difficult.

“This is hard work,” said Borrego, who studies interdisciplinary teams in academic environments. “You need to get up to speed with your collaborators, have a breakthrough and then be able to communicate that breakthrough with others who may not be in the same discipline.”

But The University of Texas at Austin engineer also offered advice on how universities and individuals can be successful in the endeavor. She stressed the importance of four key skills each member of an interdisciplinary research team should strive for: teamwork, integration, communication and awareness.

Borrego also brought up strategies that teams should consider, like attending retreats together, conducting a project kick-off orientation and requiring lab rotations so that researchers can better understand every aspect of the project – not just their own.

As an incentive to get more people involved in interdisciplinary research, Borrego suggested that universities reward faculty with tenure, offer graduate students interdisciplinary fellowships and create specialized centers that are focused on interdisciplinary research.

In addition to the keynote presentation, the symposium brought UTEP researchers together to share their areas of expertise in hopes of spurring conversation and future interdisciplinary teamwork.

The two-day symposium included poster sessions by faculty and graduate students. Topics ranged from better meningitis diagnosis and treatment of Chagas disease to smart cities and materials for solar panels.

“I’m working to create an early warning detection system that will help us predict when certain pathogens in the soil are taking flight,” said doctoral geology student John Olgin.

Olgin explained to symposium attendees that certain bacteria and fungi can live in the soil and spread through the air depending on soil erosion and wind conditions. Q fever, which is caused by inhaling the bacteria Coxiella burnetii, is one example of the phenomenon.

Using atmospheric and soil erosion models, the geologist hopes to create a system that can warn the public when outdoor conditions are ripe for the spread of such diseases.

Olgin said he decided to take advantage of the symposium’s poster session to promote his work.

“I want to get my research out there and let others know that this is going on,” he said. “The other idea was to communicate with people in different areas to see what they can bring to the project. This study doesn’t just involve weather and soil, but biology and public health.”

Specialized centers within the University, like the Center for Law and Human Behavior and the Center for Transportation Infrastructure Systems, also had their chance in the limelight. Academic units were invited to give seven-minute presentations to quickly update the audience on what they do.

Afterward, attendees mingled with center presenters if they were interested in learning more or conducting joint research.

Another major aspect of the symposium were breakout panels that focused on different topics in interdisciplinary research. Options included learning about artists’ and musicians’ experiences with cross-disciplinary projects, how to engage nonacademic team members and what sort of interdisciplinary studies are currently happening at UTEP.

Andrea Tirres, ORSP’s interdisciplinary network manager, said the symposium-organizing team made a concerted effort this year to increase one-on-one interactions among attendees through the event’s different components.

“Comments that I received during the symposium indicate that these efforts are contributing to new connections among faculty, staff, and students across campus,” Tirres said. “These new connections are relationships that may propel a team forward in framing or reframing their research question, finding the experts they need or opening up new doors to resources on and off campus.”

Olgin said he was glad that the University was promoting interdisciplinary research.

“More heads are better than one,” he said. “These people – right here in this symposium – are the building blocks of the future.”

Additional organizers that assisted with the symposium include UTEP’s Cyber-ShARE Center of Excellence, the Graduate School and the Office of the Provost.