Interdisciplinary research, supervision and finding your own voice

By | 22 oktober, 2014

Today I was at the Annual WINGS (Women IN Great Sciences) Conference at Lund University. It was the most interesting conference I have ever been to! The themes for this years conference were interdisciplinary research and mentoring and sponsorship.

I learned that there are something called ”wicked problems” that mean problems that are complicated or impossible to solve because of the requirements being unclear or constantly changing. To address these type of problems we need interdisciplinary research since not only one discipline can solve them. Usually these are problems with a moral and political aspect and without any ”perfect” solution, the solution is just better or worse. There were several people talking about the opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary research. One of them mentioned that he had been bored with his research and was considering to maybe change into another career, but then he started to do interdisciplinary research and suddenly research was fun again. It gave him a context and the possibility to work with real problems in the real world. This I think is very important. Working with accelerator physics, I can also sometimes feel that my research is boring and to far away from the things that really matter to people, but I have lately realized that interdisciplinary research can change this. The MAX IV facility is a user facility which means the accelerators we develop are going to be used by someone else to conduct experiments. Presently, I am working with a project where we have some users that want to conduct time-resolved experiments at our storage rings and it is my task to evaluate the alternatives for doing this. It not really interdisciplinary research since most of the users (if not all) are physicists, but still it means communicating and collaborating with people that is not in you own field, and it is so much fun! Suddenly there is someone that relies on your work and think it is useful. Also, you are able to be both be an expert and learn from others at the same time.

There are some things I think is important when it comes to interdisciplinary research and some of them were also raised at the conference. Firstly, it think it is important how you define yourself. I have a degree in engineering, but have never defined myself as an engineer and when it comes to engineering I have a lack of self-confidence. I practice to say to myself that I can solve problems because I am an engineer, but it goes slowly to convince myself. But is not the same when it comes to physics. I define myself as an accelerator physicist and in that role I have confidence. I know that I can do certain things, and the things I cannot do I can figure out how to do. This I think is very important in interdisciplinary research because there you work in collaborations where you maybe are the only one from your field. The knowledge you bring into the collaboration and the confidence you have in your role are then essential for the success of the research. Secondly, I think academic leadership are a key component of all research, but especially important for interdisciplinary research. How do we create functioning collaborations and how do we make the environment inclusive for people from different fields? This is something I think we should discuss much more. Accelerator facilities are big research facilities consisting of people from many different fields and the management of them is a truly fascinating subject. This was mentioned a bit on the conference from the view that we need to organize the conditions for collaborations. We need to create areas to meet, possibilities for learning each others language and to active people. Bye, bye, boring conferences and workshops with only a lot of presentations and no discussions. That is out, in the future we should use creative methods to make people talk to each other. Another very interesting idea that was raised is to have discipline PhD students that work in interdiscipline environments. In that way the students can gain an identity and confidence in their own discipline, but at the same time get the perspectives from other disciplines. I have worked in similar environments like this before and think it is very rewarding. We should do this more both in research and education.

Another very interesting aspect that came to my mind when talking about interdisciplinary research is the constraints set on the science by the society. I have been thinking about this before, but it has started to interest me more and more. Accelerator physics is a field which demands a lot of funding and often international collaborations, meaning there is a lot of politics and cultural exchange involved. Also, there are many ethical questions related to the development of the machines, e.g. radiation safety, production of radioactive waste and energy consumption. All of this do not only affect the science we can do, it constraints it. So additionally to constraints set by physics and technical challenges, we also have to consider the constraints set by society. Interdisciplinary research could really help us to learn more about how important this is, what it means for the development of the science we conduct, and how to tackle these questions in the future.

Then the conference also discussed the importance of mentoring and sponsorship for research careers. The difference between these two roles were highlighted. A mentor is someone who gives you advice and that you can talk to, whereas a sponsor is someone that talks about you to others, that promote you and have ambitions for you. More men than women tend to have sponsors and this has a positive influence on their career. It was also raised that for men working longer hours more often results in promotion than it does for women. For women it is more important to increase visibility and have a sponsor. However, in science this is a bit more complicated. To have someone that promotes you too much could be dangerous since you in science should rely on your own merits. I think it has to be the role of the supervisors to balance this. A supervisor should introduce you to people that could be important for you career and talk about your research to others, but also help you to get confidence to build your own network and talk for yourself. I guess supervision is a lot like parenthood. A good a supervisor has ambitions for you and support you to achieve them, but at the same time gives you the possibility to grow into an independent researcher with the ability to develop your own ambitions. This is not easy.

I have some people in my life that I admire and I see as role models. For a long time I copied what they were doing and tried to do the same as them, but it did never really work out. Lately I have realized that this is not the way you should use role models. A role model is someone you gain inspiration from, but then you need to figure out how you should use the inspiration you have gained. You are not your role models and can never be. You are yourself and you have to find your own role and your own way of doing things. Or as was said at the conference, release the genius inside you. For example in science, you cannot spend your life trying to talk like your supervisor. Your have to speak with your own voice. But when finding this voice, role models can be very important. At least they have been and still are for me.

An example of this actually occurred at the end of the conference. The conference ended with a dinner and as usually at events like this alcohol is served. For some reason this often comes together with jokes like ”let’s end this a bit early so we can get to the alcohol” or ”good that we have lot of alcohol since that is needed for scientists to be able to mingle”. For me that do not drink alcohol this is really excluding because it directly feels like I am no longer a part of the group. I have heard this type of jokes a million times and I am so bored of them. The very interesting thing about this case was that the jokes were preceded by a discussion about social activities at the workplace that exclude women from informal mentoring (e.g. sport activities when you are the only woman and need to change in a different room from everyone else) and how the working place has to arrange activities that include everyone. However, no one seemed to consider this when it came to alcohol. The alcohol norm and how it excludes people was not an issue. For me this is maybe a bigger problem than being a woman. I know that I lose many opportunities for informal mentoring because of my relation to alcohol. For many years I therefore forced myself to take part in different activities just to be a part of the group and not be left outside and forgotten. It only resulted in me feeling very alone since those type of activities often result in conversations about alcohol (people do not seem to have anything more interesting to talk about…) which I have nothing to contribute to. Also, if someone then ask you about what you do at your spare time it is not really a situation where you want to say ”well, I am engaged in a temperance organisation and work with advocating restrictive alcohol policy”, which basically is what I am doing at my spare time. I was so afraid of causing a bad mood and upsetting other people that I instead concealed a part of myself. This is relevant in this context since I learned from my role models that it is impossible for me to be liked by everyone and trying to achieve that will only lead to me hating myself. I have to stand up for my opinions and speak up when I think someone is offending me. This is the only way to feel good about yourself and earn respect from other people. So nowadays I do. It feels horrible every time, but usually it turns out that I am not the only person thinking the same thing. This happened today too. I was talking to a woman about the importance of meeting people outside of science to get new perspectives and then I mentioned that I was engaged in the Swedish temperance movement. It turned out that she was also a member and we had a discussion about the very boring alcohol jokes and how it happens every time. So now I know that I am not the only one feeling excluded because of the alcohol norm in science. This means I have a valid case and it is not only me that is too sensitive. I do not have to leave science because I do not fit in, I can feel confident in my role as a physicist and use it to make physics inclusive and welcoming for everyone, including me. This I think is finding your own voice.