Friday, 20 February 2015

Tropical Biology and Conservation Course: Interdisciplinary Groups… or People?

The following is a blog post I wrote for the McGill-STRI-University of Illinois "Tropical Biology and Conservation" course. Enjoy!
There’s a prevailing idea in academia that we need increasing interdisciplinary partnerships, and increasingly interdisciplinary people. This is an ideology that framed my entire undergraduate career, and something I’ve noticed in several lectures throughout this course; collaboration is critical to producing high quality and publishable work. This is clearly a no-brainer; however, all that being said, I feel there is still a long ways to go.
Anthony Coates gave an incredibly interesting talk on the geologic history on the isthmus of Panama. Once I’d looked up what an isthmus was, I was intrigued by the sheer volume of work done by geologists. (An isthmus, in case you were wondering, is a small strip of land that rests between two oceans or seas that connects two much larger land masses, thank you Wikipedia). Tony opened his talk by stating that geologists and palaeontologists often spend much more time learning about biology, than biologists take the time to learn about geology or palaeontology. This is often the case, though there are always exceptions; however, much of this can be said for every discipline when it comes to research outside their own field. Not that this is justification for ignorance, but it raises the question of the value of specialization versus generalization. If diversity within academia is so critical to addressing our world’s problems, are we better off with a diversity of researchers, or a diversity within each researcher?
This same idea came up in a much different context a few days later, when we attended the STRI Tupper seminar on the History of STRI. A question was asked at the end of the talk regarding the limited integration of Latin American scientists into STRI, and what efforts have been made to improve the diversity within the research community. One of the responses to this question referred to the historical context of Panama and its relations with the United States. There is a significant, and tumultuous, history between these states that really has been more conducive to friction and separation, as opposed to collaboration. These relations have improved in the past few decades, but the remains of the political tension still persist. You might wonder where this relates to interdisciplinary research, but my point comes from the fact that as academics we often become so focused on our particular disciplines that we forget to look at the broader context of where and what we’re researching. We can be so focused on the microcosm that we study, that the history framing our study site becomes lost in translation.
On a more practical note, this history, be it evolutionary, political, economic, social or otherwise, can also explain why collaborations can be so successful… or not. This is where I think one of the values of this course lies, in that we have such diversity of perspectives, research focuses, and people, and we have no choice but to interact with and learn from each other. We are forced to expand our conception of how the world works, or how it should work. Collaboration is not an obligation so much as an exciting prospect. Perhaps the future wave of academia will move in this direction, or it already is. Tis food for thought at any rate.

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