To Boldy Go: Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Community Engagement

Submitted on March 29, 2022
Gray logical shapes and colorful creative images meet in the middle of an image to form a lightbulb

Written by Luke Wink-Moran | Photo by denisismagilov

Interdisciplinary research allows graduate students to combine disciplines in order to yield new insights, solve multifaceted problems, and work closely with communities with diverse needs. This article showcases some of the remarkable interdisciplinary graduate students at UArizona and includes tips and advice to help others interested in interdisciplinary research get started.

Annalysa Lovos, who is earning her PhD in Psychology, and Rebecca Thompson, a doctoral candidate in Applied Intercultural Arts Research, were selected for the Art and Science Collaboration award in 2019. The initiative funded their interdisciplinary research partnership with the Desert Museum Art Institute and the UA Cancer Center. Combining Thompson’s expertise in public art and Lovos’s research in psychology, the two scholars produced a video that depicts tranquil scenes from the Sonoran Desert for an audience of cancer patients in waiting rooms before chemotherapy treatments—a wait that can take five hours or more. The video is now playing in the Banner Medical Center and has not only addressed a community need in a way that wouldn’t have been possible with the application of only one discipline but has also sparked an entirely new research direction for Thompson, who’s currently investigating how desert scenery impacts health. As far as she has been able to ascertain, no other research has been done in this area.

This is just one example of how interdisciplinary research can support communities and enrich a scholar’s perspective. There are many other avenues available to people thinking about interdisciplinary work. One example is the research path taken by Zhiyu (Gabby) Wen, a second-year PhD student who grew up in China and studied vocal performance as an undergraduate. After college, she backpacked through New Zealand and Australia for two years, working in orchards and vineyards before returning to China to teach music. “And then my grandmother passed away,” Wen remembers. “She and I had a really close relationship, and she suffered from dementia. And then I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I can use music to help people like my grandmother.’”

Wen enrolled in a graduate program in Hong Kong, where she earned her Master’s in music with a focus on the relationship between music and dementia. Now at UArizona for her PhD, Wen works directly with people living with dementia. She first talks with them about their past and about their favorite music; then, using virtual reality headsets, she creates immersive environments filled with sights and songs from their past.

Wen is in the Applied Intercultural Arts Research (AIAR) program, a new graduate degree that is designed to prepare students for the application of music, arts, and culture to solving contemporary problems. There are 19 Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs (GIDPs) at UArizona.  But if you aren’t involved in a GIDP, that doesn’t mean you can’t do interdisciplinary research. Greg Chism, for example, is a PhD student in the entomology department, but he collaborates with the school of architecture and the departments of biology and computer science to study how the structure of an ant colony affects the insects’ behavior. Chism’s project was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and has enabled him to study ants from multifaceted perspectives.

While interdisciplinary research offered Chism unique opportunities, he cautions that it also presented unique challenges. “It's really sexy to say, ‘I’m going to use these techniques and tools and apply them to my study,’” says Chism, “But don’t just jump into it. Make sure you’re being thorough about this. Make sure you have a common language with the other researchers and that you understand each other’s desired outcome and what you care about. It’s also important to have a clear project management plan and make sure everyone fits into it. Project management helps you think about your goals and figure out how to make your research a two-way street. One component, a data management plan, can help ensure that your research is reproducible and accessible, and it’s something funding agencies require anyway now.”

For Arianna Tariqi, interdisciplinarity can address issues more completely than one discipline alone could. And it expands students’ understanding of their own discipline. Tariqi is a PhD student in Environmental Engineering and an Indige-FEWSS trainee.  The Indige-FEWSS Program aims to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers to work with and within Indigenous communities in order to address food-energy-water challenges. “I worked with two other girls; one’s in urban planning and the other is in agriculture education,” says Tariqi, speaking about her recent trip to check the water filtration units in a Navajo community. “I was the student in charge of the water sampling, but because of my friends’ questions, I had to think about how to explain my work to someone who may not know exactly how it works. It got my brain going.” Tariqi also learned from community members’ disciplines. “Some of the girls were working on the electrical part, or the solar part,” Tariqi recalls. “They taught me a lot about electrical components and helped me understand their application to water filtration units.”

Interdisciplinary programs like Indige-FEWSS also offer unique opportunities for community engagement: “I think the main thing I learned from that trip was application,” said Tariqi, “how everything from my classes can be applied in a community setting and how working with others from across disciplines expanded my way of knowing my own work. It was really eye-opening.” In honor of Women’s History month, Tariqi added special thanks to Dr. Karlotta Chief, Dr. Kerri Hickenbottom, Dr. Vicky Karanikola, Dr. Colleen Naughton, her mother, Collette, and her sister, Nitara, for their invaluable support.

If you’d like to get involved in interdisciplinary collaboration, you can start by reaching out to faculty and staff in programs that interest you. Sydney Streightiff, a first year PhD student in AIAR, also recommends reading about interdisciplinary research online and considering generative collaborations. Click here for an interview with Sydney about her own multifaceted trajectory. If you’d like to learn more about interdisciplinary options, check out the Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs (GIDP) website