My experience in interdisciplinary research

Prologue: It’s #WomensMonth and I was asked to write a little bit about my perspective in interdisciplinary research. This is probably the hardest blog post I have had to write because I do not have a strong opinion on gender issues. I think I have been lucky in my past experiences which led me to not have to develop a strong opinion on these issues. In this post, I expound a bit on this sense of luck.

Interdisciplinary research is a complicated venture. This type of work is needed when you are trying to tackle a problem that is too complex (too wicked) to be solved by a single discipline. From environmental sustainability to cancer, our world is riddled with wicked problems waiting to be solved. Doing interdisciplinary research often means that you have to work in a team comprised of experts in different fields, which can lead to issues due to all the jargon we use in each of our fields and differences in culture. Half the time, you are likely to have no idea what your collaborator is saying.

Now add to this the inherent complexities of working in any kind of team at all: differences in culture, age range, rank, and gender. I think that any team is more likely to have problems at some point than to sail through to success because human nature is so complicated. But just like wicked problems can only be solved by combining different disciplines, human teams are more likely to rise above mediocrity when they are diverse. That is the beauty of our so complicated human nature.

For example, teams with both female and male members outperformed single-gendered teams in a research study. Still, I remember getting some of my best grades working in all-female teams in undergrad (I’m thinking of you, Helena, Lorena, Daniela, and Daiane!). What does that say about this? That probably there is no all-encompassing rule when it comes to human behavior. I believe that the same goes for modern-day gender issues. Another study found that, in group discussions, female students made shorter statements and presented them more hesitantly. My background in an engineering field taught me that to be heard it would serve me well to be assertive, to speak loudly and clearly, and to make sure my arguments were sound. I don’t like to think that these are inherently male traits because, well, these come naturally to me and I’m female.

I’m lucky to have worked with some very talented women throughout the past fifteen years in a field in which the numbers were historically not on our side. While other diversity and inclusion issues persist, today we are reaching overall gender equality in Science and Engineering undergraduate degrees and we are making good progress in graduate degrees.

Today I am a researcher in the very interdisciplinary field of environmental nanotechnology. I am happy to have worked in teams with every possible gender ratio and teammates from many different disciplines and countries all over the world. I have been so lucky that I haven’t had to think about gender issues very often because in my immediate work and life circles I have interacted with equally successful men and women. But that also has made me less tuned into some small issues around me.

Working with people from a variety of backgrounds has been incredibly enriching and I’m sure it made me a better manager and researcher, even though the activation energy for a diverse team may a little higher. Those positive team experiences were only possible because team members were treated with equality, regardless of their backgrounds, gender or otherwise. The current UN #heforshe campaign tackles exactly that: gender equality is an issue to be addressed by society as a whole, not one segment fighting against the other. Diversity makes us better people and creates better teams. Seeing other backgrounds and hearing other perspectives can give us the creative energy we need to tackle wicked problems.



Women in Interdisciplinary Research

Tuesday, March 31st

1:00—3:00PM in 310 Kelly Hall


What is it like to work in interdisciplinary research? Does it offer particular challenges, and opportunities, for women? During a panel discussion, hear from women involved with the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. Learn how they found themselves in this fast-growing area of science—and what the opportunities are for you! Brief tour of one of the interdisciplinary labs to follow. Sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

Contact Dawn Maxey at for more information.


About the Author:  Marina Vance is the Associate Director for VTSuN: Virginia Tech’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology and a research scientist of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) at Virginia Tech.


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