One of the biggest intellectual challenges that I have confronted as a young scientist is the sense that, despite all the hard work I put into my research, it may never reach beyond my lab, my department, or the journals of my discipline. When I talk to fellow graduate students I hear that I’m not alone, and the feeling of unfulfilled impact seems to be the primary factor driving many away from academia. For those of us who want to continue chipping away at the incremental process of science and share that progress widely, we then need to challenge ourselves to communicate our work outside of academia and support each another when we do.
The ICN fills an important gap in an academic system that often falls short in facilitating broad communication. It was the ICN Collaborative Challenge Research Grant (CCRG), in fact, that encouraged me to look beyond my colleagues in ecology for help communicating the topics I study. But, aside from the success or failure of the project to communicate science to the public, it was hugely rewarding on a personal level. This was my first foray into interdisciplinary collaboration, so my experience is an n of 1, but I’ll use this opportunity to share some of those personal insights.
1.Reach out, even if it’s a long shot.
My collaboration with Brock was serendipitous. I identified Brock’s work as a good fit for the topic I had in mind, and Brock was up to the challenge. We exchanged emails, met for coffee, and the ball was rolling. Unsolicited emails aren’t always successful, but we have nothing to lose by reaching out to people whose work we admire.
2.Put your ideas on paper, and do it on a deadline.
The CCRG call prompted our connection, but the common ideas that unified our work emerged in writing our proposal. A clear goal, the ICN award, was an important motivation for learning about each other’s work, the concepts with which we were grappling, and the ways we could connect them. I had to step back from the details of my thesis research and identify the key ideas it, and the literature I had studied, revealed. Where was the consensus of the research community pointing? What did I want the public to understand, and what would just muddle the picture? Brock, too, was compelled to reflect on the motivations for his work, and the ideas he wanted it to reflect. Formalizing ideas, with a goal and a deadline, can provide important clarity.
3.Step out of your comfort zone and into your collaborator’s.
Collaboration could certainly be done remotely, but spending time in my collaborator’s workspace was one of the biggest rewards of our project. I identified areas in the Bitterroot ecosystem that had recently burned at mixed severity and had general ideas about what we might convey with the photographs, but when we were out shooting I was in Brock’s territory. I carried cameras and tripods and held things as instructed, but mostly I watched. I looked for ways that the landscape was revealing its processes, and saw how Brock captured them. Spending time in a collaborator’s lab, learning new analytical techniques from them, or reading the literature of their discipline could provide the same experience.
4.Stay open to unexpected lessons.
The goal of our project was to use photography to communicate ecological concepts, but there were surprising personal benefits too. I was particularly struck by the significant similarities between the artistic and scientific process. I was used to hearing about all the differences between subjective thinking and objective thinking, about left brain and right brain, creativity and logic. When I watched Brock’s process though, those stereotypes didn’t pan out. He started with compelling questions that didn’t have clear answers. He identified procedures and tools to dissect them, abstract their complexities and learn something about them. The process was iterative, and at a satisfactory endpoint, he presented his findings. Watching that process forced me to consider my own, and left me encouraged by the diverse ways to approach the same problem.