Interdisciplinarity Interview #2: The different dimensions of power grid resilience

Dr. Mehrnaz Anvari and Dr. Thomas Vogt focus on the resilience of power grids to extreme weather from meteorological and modeling of complex networks perspectives. In part 2 of our interview series, they report how their approach can be used to improve grid resilience and discuss the challenges that interdisciplinary work poses for careers in the current scientific system.

Dr. Mehrnaz Anvari
PIK – Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Leibniz Section E
Working group: Dynamics, stability and resilience of complex hybrid infrastructure networks
Profession: Physicist studying stochastic processes, data-driven models, and complex networks

Dr. Thomas Vogt
PIK – Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
Leibniz Section E
Working group: Event-based modeling of economic impacts of climate change
Profession: Mathematician studying the economic impacts of tropical cyclones

Example for outstanding interdisciplinarity:
Our institute, the PIK

For us, interdisciplinary work means…

  • Stimulating surprising advances in one field of research through questions arising from another one.
  • Expanding science towards realms of knowledge that can not clearly be assigned to a single discipline and would otherwise be left to commercial and political exploitation.
  • Considering a scientific question from different perspectives and, then, applying all these perspectives in order to provide a comprehensive answer to the initial question.

Dr. Anvari and Dr. Vogt, please think back to your first meeting. Did you have any biases against each other’s discipline that you have been able to revise in the meantime?

TV: When we first met, I just knew that Mehrnaz’ group worked on complex networks and I didn’t even know exactly what that meant. Maybe I was just not very well-prepared for the meeting, but that helped to avoid biases on my side.

MA: The beginning of our cooperation coincided with the beginning of my work at PIK, so I did not know much about the other groups and their fields of research and, thereby, I did not have any biases against them. Indeed, I liked to establish my network inside PIK, and I saw this collaboration as a great opportunity.

Can you explain the topic of your joint project?

TV: We investigated the resilience of power grids to extreme weather, in particular hurricanes. Instead of only modeling the direct physical damage caused by the storm, we considered a dynamic model of power load balancing that allows to predict the cascading outages of grid infrastructure in response to a sequence of wind-induced failures of transmission lines.

Why was interdisciplinarity important for your joint project?

MA: Considering the interplay of extreme wind events with the power grid required the cooperation of experts in models of extreme weather and complex networks (particularly electric networks). The former is essential to get access to high resolution, spatiotemporal hurricane data, and the latter is necessary to investigate the impact of wind-induced failures in the electric network.

What are the key findings until now, and how did they benefit from interdisciplinarity?

TV: We found that power outages are often avoided by load rebalancing in case of singular line failures. But multiple failures can escalate quickly into cascades of failures that isolate parts of the grid. Using our model, it is possible to identify the most vulnerable regions, and we found that improving the robustness of a small number of lines can greatly improve the resilience of the grid. The project was highly interdisciplinary from the start as it required both a meteorological description of hurricane dynamics and a model of the complex network dynamics in a power grid. Bringing that temporal component into the picture would not have been possible without expertise from both fields.

Communication of interdisciplinary research and within interdisciplinary teams can be challenging. Can you share your experiences?

MA: One of the important challenges at the beginning of each collaboration is to find a common language and to ensure understanding of the other party’s concerns. Moreover, it is essential to ensure that not only the methodology or model of another party is clear for you, but also they can follow your methodology. Overcoming these challenges at the beginning of the cooperation is the cornerstone of a successful interdisciplinary work.

What advice can you give postdocs for upcoming communications?

TV: Don’t take your collaborator’s models as a black box, but openly address concerns about the model design even if you think it’s not your field of expertise. On the other hand, your own work will profit from being transparent and taking questions from other perspectives seriously.

Were there factors in your education or background that particularly prepared you for interdisciplinarity?

MA: During my Ph.D., I had a chance to collaborate with researchers of other disciplines, such as meteorology and electrical engineering. I believe that it was a great opportunity to get to know both the charms of interdisciplinary cooperation and its challenges. What I learned during my doctorate shed a light on how to improve the quality of future collaborations.

Beyond your enthusiasm for the topic: are you putting your scientific career at risk by working in an interdisciplinary project? What are relevant aspects?

TV: Working in interdisciplinary teams is highly encouraged by our institute and is beneficial in many funding calls in our field. However, working in interdisciplinary teams with many co-authors can be detrimental to your personal publication statistics. Often, only first-author publications are relevant when it comes to quantifying an individual researcher’s output, even though working in an interdisciplinary context requires a lot of time and effort also for the co-authors, which can be frustrating.

Can you formulate a (speculative) solution to this problem?

TV: I have never worked in industry, but it seems to me like people are able to make careers there as well, even though that work environment is not built around publications. People seem to have found means of convincing each other of their abilities and qualifications without presenting publication statistics that are difficult to interpret, especially in interdisciplinary contexts. So, maybe one solution is to stop “quantifying” research output, and talk to each other instead.

MA: Short-term contracts during the postdoc stage are another problem. Interdisciplinary projects need more time, because as we mentioned already, we need more time to first find the shared language and understand the methodology of another party. This is almost impossible with six- or even twelve-month contracts. It is so important to establish new rules to give long-term contracts to postdocs.

Is the scientific system in Germany prepared for interdisciplinary research?

MA: In an institution like PIK, with outstanding researchers in various fields, there is a lot of potential for interdisciplinary collaborations. However, in my opinion, there is not enough scientific communication between Postdocs. A major reason could be the short duration of the contracts, that does not allow building a constructive collaboration between Postdocs. Also, Postdocs are sometimes not aware of the positive points of interdisciplinary collaborations, such as establishing scientific networks and presenting their research studies to other researchers, which help them in their future career paths.

Do you have a suggestion how communication and network building between postdocs can be fostered (by Leibniz)?

MA: I think planning such interviews is a good starting point. In my opinion, organizing regular talks about successful interdisciplinary projects can encourage other postdocs to collaborate with researchers from other disciplines and, in addition, foster communication and networking between them. Moreover, increasing the budget of Leibniz-Kooperative Exzellenz can also be useful because, according to my knowledge, currently only one group of researchers from each Leibniz institute can apply annually for Kooperative Exzellenz, which is not enough at all.

Apart from interdisciplinarity, what would you like to advocate for?

MA: For energy transition and moving towards carbon neutrality, on one side we need to access green sources of energy in electric networks and, on the other side increase the number of electrical vehicles and electricity-based heating systems. This means that our modern society depends more on the reliability of electric networks. Therefore, more than ever, we need electric networks with high stability that are able to mitigate disturbances.

TV: I would like to remind our colleagues that the climate crisis goes well beyond the boundaries of science and technical knowledge. Our colleagues in social science understand that it’s a crisis of justice, it’s about spheres of influence, about narratives and cultural identities, that can only be solved in street protests and in negotiations with those who hold the power. So, please use your influence (and your privileges), leave your comfort zone, and reach out to the public, as a scientist, and as a citizen.

We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Mehrnaz Anvari and Dr. Thomas Vogt for supporting our interview series on interdisciplinarity with their participation.

Find out more about the interviewees and their work:

Find here Interdisciplinarity Interview #1: The different dimensions of educational values with Dr. Jennifer Meyer and Dr. Jan Scharf

Want to find out why we created this interview series?

Want to learn more about the first interview series on COVID related research?

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