Learning Interdisciplinary Research

For the last year, I have been a member of the Virginia Tech Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology — affectionately known as VTSuN.  Check out our awesome website here and an explanatory blog post here.

VTSuN is (also) an Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP). Imagine a certificate program for grad school. Or in grad school speak, a way to do interdisciplinary research without potentially hurting your career.  As such, certain requirements must be fulfilled including GRAD 5134 : Interdisciplinary Research.  Currently ~8 VTSuN students are taking the class but the views expressed herein are mine.

Background: : Our IGEP class meets every Friday morning from 9 to 11:30am in the Graduate Life Center (GLC). The class is composed of students from VTSuN and two other IGEP programs: Water INTERface (Water) and Translational Obesity Research (TOR). As an interdisciplinary interdisciplinary (2I) class we have 4 instructors – 2 from Civil/Environmental Engineering and 2 from Human Nutrition, Food and Exercise (HNFE).Thus far (2 classes) I’ve enjoyed the 2I class because I had the chance to talk with individuals with varying research interests.  Although being part of VTSuN means that I am not in a traditional academic silo – it often feels that I don’t know many people outside of this group. // This is not a complaint, I am well aware that VTSuN is extremely lucky to have an interdisciplinary lab (1 large lab with members from 4 lab groups) known as the  Environmental Nanoscale and Technology (ENT) Lab. Certainly, being part of VTSuN and ENT have made the last year extremely enjoyable. //

A conversations that I feel is missing from the interdisciplinary discussion follows.

Diversity and respect in interdisciplinary research

At Virginia Tech, like many schools, there is a diversity statement. Hokies (people from VT) call it the Principles of Community.  The statement is posted in many classrooms, though not in the room we use in the GLC, and it is supposed to be printed on every syllabus.  Could you guess? It was not printed on the syllabus for the IGEP class. I noticed this immediately but took a positive outlook and assumed that we would address the issue of respect in our first session.  No such discussion took place and before the first class was over I had to raise the issue.  The instructors responded that it was simply an oversight and that we would not be discussing diversity issues.

My classmates may have thought I was being overly sensitive given that the faculty for the class was half female and the class is over 50% female. But recent events in the science community have reiterated the fact that sexism in STEM still exists. As well, framing diversity solely in terms of gender is nearsighted.  Shouldn’t respect ground every team project?  Even a STEM individual who doesn’t understand the importance of diversity could recognize that there is a certain set of skills necessary to deal with a multilingual group.

To me, the IGEP class is the perfect place to start the conversation on diversity in the STEM fields.  Members of IGEPs are already outside the normal academic conventions and the class is focused on team work and talking across the disciplines. Having an environmental engineer communicate ideas clearly to an economist is an important skill for interdisciplinary research but so is having that engineer respect that the economist has to leave at 5 to pick up his/her children.

I know that this blog post may have a minimal impact but I hope to continue to grow this idea and turn it into my diversity scholars project. The ‘only science’ attitude needs to go because people are people.


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