This blog post is the first part of our second interview series starting in fall 2022. In case you missed it you can find a short overview about the 2021 interview series and links to each individual interview in this recap post from May 2022 . After the topical focus on COVID-19 in 2021 we decided to cover a more general topic in our second series. We want to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary work at the Leibniz Association (and beyond) and let researchers tell us about their experiences when conducting interdisciplinary academic work. For the opener of the series Marvin Bähr from Leibniz headquarters suggested an interview where we, instead of asking questions, have to provide answers for once. We hope you enjoy it.
Gregor Kalinkat and Christian Nehls on Science Communication and a New Set of Interviews on Interdisciplinary Research
Marvin Bähr: What motivated you to do these interview series?
Christian: When the Covid-pandemic hit, there was an increased awareness for scientists in Germany and all over the world. But in most of the cases, the persons in the spotlight were the senior scientists. Therefore, we thought of possibilities to bring some of the spotlight also to the junior researchers that are contributing significantly to successful projects.
Gregor: In addition, we wanted to use the new-built website to present the Leibniz postdocs as the multidisciplinary and diverse community that they are.
Run us through the work you put into an interview. What has to happen behind the scenes until publication?
Gregor: At the beginning of a series, we draft a questionnaire as a basis for the interviews, but then each one will be customized following the flow of a conversation. And before an interview is published, it goes through two or three rounds of revisions together with the interviewees. Over the course of this process, we also integrate feedback from the PostDoc Network steering committee, to help make what the interviewees want to convey more concise.
Christian: And this support from the steering committee is very important for quality control, because obviously Gregor and I come from single disciplines and are by no means experts on every research topic.
What is the most interesting thing you each learned about Covid-19 research during last year’s interview series?
Gregor: That’s a tough question! *both laughing*
Christian: Well, when you look at the news, you get the impression that most of the Covid research is done by virologists, but when reading our interview series, you get a completely different picture. That picture is, of course, also biased, but it is the huge diversity of disciplines, which impressed me most.
Gregor: You could highlight so many excellent contributions to the series, but the one that probably impressed me most, was the one from Dr. Ajit Ahlawat (TROPOS) on aerosol transmission in indoor spaces. He and his coauthors showed that the rate of infection depends a lot on the humidity in the room. If the air is humid enough, transmission will be lower.
Why do a new interview series on interdisciplinarity?
Gregor: We think interdisciplinarity is an extremely important topic. To really tackle the big questions, working across disciplines is key. The last two years have shown this and future challenges cannot be solved without interdisciplinary cooperation.
Christian: I fully agree. The biggest global challenges can only be solved with interdisciplinary approaches. And at Leibniz institutes, we implement these approaches every day.
As researchers, what are your experiences with interdisciplinary work?
Gregor: As an ecologist, I have always worked across disciplines. In ecology, people may have a degree in biology or physics or veterinary medicine, and then there are others who come from agricultural or environmental sciences, all tackling common questions together. In my experience, working with people that have different and diverse backgrounds is always a great opportunity to learn.
Christian: I am a biophysicist and biophysics is per se an interdisciplinary research area. In our group at the Research Center Borstel (FZB), there are always chemists, biologists and physicists working together. And currently, together with researchers from TROPOS, other Leibniz-Institutes and Cape Verde, I am working in the DUSTRISK-project, which is funded by the Leibniz Competition. It aims to developed a risk-index for respiratory diseases associated with desert dust and is highly interdisciplinary. The goal of this project is to combine the results of different research groups working in different fields into one single formula. Now that’s really fancy! I am very excited to see how this works.
Why do you think some researchers shy away from interdisciplinary environments?
Christian: Well, I think a very lively communication culture is most important in interdisciplinary work. It’s all about communication, I believe. To built a truly interdisciplinary research environment, it is necessary that the researchers are not just working in parallel, but devote time to conversation and exchange. And yet, this is work that not all researchers are used to do. What is more, in interdisciplinary contexts you regularly have to leave your comfort zone and accept that there is content matter you do not understand. This can be uncomfortable.
What would you have liked to know before you first started doing interdisciplinary research?
Gregor: Reflecting upon this question, I realize that during my whole academic career I have been working with researchers from other disciplines. And going back even further, already as a student I routinely attended lectures from a variety of fields. I guess intrinsic motivation played a large part in that. Therefore, I do not feel fully equipped to give advice to someone who would be hesitant to dive into interdisciplinarity.
Christian: What I would have liked to know before, is how much fun it is. Because if I would have known, I would have started earlier. *everybody laughing*
Is there such a thing as an interdisciplinary spirit and how can research organizations foster it?
Gregor: Absolutely! You have to bring people together and create an atmosphere, where everyone feels welcomed and appreciated with their specific expertise that is contributing to a bigger aim. That’s crucial.
Christian: For me it goes back to the lively discussion culture that we talked about earlier. Research organizations can help create it. In our institutional seminar, where this culture is palpable, discussions can be challenging because we know each other well and are highly interested in each other’s projects. The result is that many critical questions are raised, which can be a kind of acid test, especially for doctoral researchers. But when you make it there, you can make it anywhere! *♫ New York New York ♫*