Beginner’s Guide to Interdisciplinary Teams

From 2016-2019, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded Breaking Through, an interdisciplinary initiative with the Purdue Policy Research Institute (PPRI). Four teams were selected, each focused on a grand global challenge: big data ethics, agricultural sustainability, climate tipping points, and flood risk mitigation. To encourage interdisciplinary work, each team included members from the humanities, from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and from the libraries. To promote engaged communication, stakeholders (i.e. policymakers, government officials) were involved throughout the research. 

While the interdisciplinary approach is a unique challenge, the benefits are undeniable. When interdisciplinary teams make strong, early connections with stakeholders, it amplifies their research’s impact. Crossing disciplines allows for thoughtful and complex research, while communicating with stakeholders ensures the end results are practical assets for the community.

Diverging from Traditional Teams

Interdisciplinary work is a compelling alternative to traditional team endeavors, especially when facing grand, global challenges. PPRI’s Breaking Through is one such example, offering viable solutions to wicked problems.

“It’s not a run-of-the-mill academic project,” says Dr. Brett Crawford, co-investigator for climate tipping points. “It bridges social science with natural sciences to explore how people address similar questions through different disciplinary lenses.”

A close up of a fruit

Description automatically generatedMultidisciplinary work brings departments together, but interdisciplinary work integrates their knowledge to solve a larger problem. The work is interactive. Instead of playing side by side in a sandbox, individuals work together to build something even greater. Researchers take on challenges their field cannot solve alone, then look beyond their own skills to see which disciplines may add value to the project. Understanding how other fields accomplish research enhances one’s own work, and that sharing of ideas benefits the group as a whole.

“I knew what I wanted to accomplish, and that meant I knew what I couldn’t do myself. I started asking around to get a sense of who could fill in those gaps,” says Dr. David Johnson, principal investigator for flood risk mitigation and co-investigator for climate tipping points. One way to achieve this is through informal faculty mixers. For example, to bring potential team members together during the initial phase of the grant PPRI hosted an Innovators’ Reception for faculty from disciplines across campus.

The end goals of an interdisciplinary project are often different from traditional academia, moving beyond a single publication or conference. This can be a difficult leap, but the results are worthwhile. 

“What I found since doing interdisciplinary work is that it’s very rewarding,” says Dr. Tom Hertel, principal investigator on agricultural sustainability. “For most of my career, I worked with economists, which puts you in a particular box. Everything you do is in that box. In contrast, working with other disciplines gives you the freedom to move out of the box. It’s broadening.”

And stepping outside academic comfort zones can not only be productive but stimulating as well.

“Having a long timeline to bring our various points of expertise together on a specific problem was exciting for me,” says Dr. Crawford. “It was different than my normal day-to-day grind of writing papers.”

When engaging with interdisciplinary work for the first time, it’s important to have an appropriate mindset prior to entering the project. The end products of interdisciplinary research may be different, but they are just as enriching, if not more so.

“For this grant, it’s less about traditional deliverables and more about turning myself into someone who’s conversant across disciplines,” says Dr. Dan Kelly, co-investigator on big data ethics. “I’m doing institutional maneuvering to connect things and bring experts to campus. The fruit it will bear will be far bigger than if I’d just written a paper for a journal.”

Adding Value to the Work

Interdisciplinary work breaks down barriers between disciplines and makes grand, multifaceted research questions accessible. This supports the pursuit of knowledge and enhances its real-world impact.

“Often in our siloed research areas, connecting theory to practice is a challenge, but here we’re addressing real issues,” says Dr. Crawford. “When we engaged delegates and explored their knowledge of climate tipping points, we found gaps in their understanding. Our project was adding real value to the work they do.”

By engaging with stakeholders and understanding what they need, researchers can produce results with real benefits for their communities. 

“A key component was speaking to the community to ensure we were designing something important and relevant that wouldn’t tell them what they already knew,” says Dr. Manjana Milkoreit, principal investigator for climate tipping points and co-investigator for agricultural sustainability. “We wanted to design a serious game in response to the needs of decisionmakers. Those stakeholders who participated gained a deeper understanding of how choices they’re making today will impact the future.” 

Researchers may also be able to solve a community problem simply by offering new ideas.

“The stakeholders had been struggling for years to develop a new inventory of what assets are at risk of flooding,’ says Dr. Johnson. “Once we pitched our idea, they could immediately understand it would be useful, but it hadn’t occurred to them because they didn’t know it was possible.”

Stakeholders are not the only winners in interdisciplinary work. This value extends to the researchers themselves, both personally and professionally.

“The interdisciplinary nature of this project allows for discussions and outcomes that are broader and more comprehensive than usual academic research,” says Dr. Chris Clifton, principal investigator for big data ethics. “These projects diverge from traditional academic approaches. It’s a chance to see something different.”

Even conventional avenues such as academic journals can benefit from interdisciplinary work. By gaining insight from stakeholders or communities directly connected to the problem, researchers may improve their own chances at publication.

“Often, the hardest thing when writing a paper for a high-profile journal is the significance statement,” says Dr. Hertel. “This process has given us a better feel for why the work is significant, sharpening our focus on what are the most important results to highlight. By having a broader understanding of the issues, we have a better shot at high-profile publications.”

Moving Forward

Interdisciplinary work is a powerful tool when seeking solutions to global challenges.

“No single discipline has the tools and methods to address these issues,” says Dr. Kelly. “We need people to band together across disciplinary lines to solve the problems we’re facing.”

These global challenges cannot be faced alone. Innovative solutions require insight from multiple disciplines, engaged communication with stakeholders, and more time and effort than traditional academia allows.

 “They’re wicked problems,” says Dr. Johnson. “It’s not enough to understand the science of how flood risk changes over time. It’s not enough to understand the engineering solution of building a levee. It’s not enough to manage the human response and have an evacuation plan. All those groups have to talk to each other effectively to manage that risk.” 

As you seek new research questions or move forward with a project, consider whether your work will benefit from crossing disciplines or engaging stakeholders. With fresh eyes, new ideas, and innovative methods, how much more can you accomplish?

“Here’s the value of academics: being able to tackle real problems and make a tangible impact on the world,” says Dr. Johnson. “This is not ivory tower stuff. We’re trying to make a difference.”

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