Interdisciplinary work within research
When you begin exploring research and think about your future career, the usual advice is to try different fields of study and find which one you enjoy best. In my first semester at USC, I followed this advice and pursued research in a topic I thought would be interesting but had never worked within before. I joined Dr. Jeffry Dudycha’s evolutionary and ecology lab through volunteer work, first helping graduate students Trenton Agrelious and Matt Bruner on the evolutionary side through mutation accumulation an epigenetics with water fleas (Daphnia). While I learned important scientific procedures and practices throughout these projects, I also learned that evolution and mutation are not my passion. I then switched to the ecology side of the lab, hoping that my interest in ecological concepts in my coursework would translate to fascinating research. I worked with Jake Swanson on a phytoplankton community ecology project in the Fall of 2021 alongside my own parallel limnological independent project. This experience provided the career direction I was looking for- I realized I want to pursue a career in ecology. However, I have learned since that fall semester and through pursuing my GLD Pathway of Research that a research career is much more than the single field you primarily focus on. Strong, effective research encompasses multiple fields and perspectives to create novel approaches and observations of the world around us. However, to create a successful interdisciplinary project, effective communication among scientists and the greater public first needs to be established.
In the spring of 2022, I studied away at the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) as part of the National Student Exchange Program, which is a BTC experience for my Research Pathway. It was an incredible experience, filled with volunteer research diving in the morning and snorkeling for fun in the afternoons. While at UVI, I took the course Scientific Writing which focused on teaching the ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information by Anne M. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson. This course taught me how to write effectively and concisely as a scientist, using the active voice to communicate with a strong tone, and to create engaging presentations. We had class discussions about structuring grant proposals, peer editing of writing submissions, and did exercises to practice writing in the active voice and correct any grammatical errors. One of the most helpful exercises from the course was reading papers of difficult, detail-specific research and summarizing the work in 3 sentences. This practice taught me how to find the most important information from a piece of work and collect it into a few sentences without the field-specific jargon. I took the course to develop my communication skills within the field of ecology and to help strengthen my writing for future grant proposals and presentations. I did not realize it at the time, but the skills I learned would also contribute to my interdisciplinary communication. While I had focused on how the active voice, grant proposal strategies, and proper scientific-style language would help me as an ecologist, they later helped with my presentation at the Ecological Society of America and Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution joint conference.
Figure 1. ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information. This book along with the Scientific Writing Course at UVI introduced me to the basics of effective scientific communication within the research community and with the greater public.
In August of 2022, I presented the limnological independent project I did in the fall of 2021 at the Ecological Society of America and Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution joint conference in Montreal, Canada. For four days, I listened to lectures and viewed poster presentations which focused on a variety of topics within ecology. I had never realized how many different fields tie into ecology, from genetics and population dynamics to global climate change. Ecology is not simply about the interaction of organisms with one another and their environment, a multitude of fields contribute to research within ecology to create unique approaches to questions and impactful conclusions. Through the communication skills I learned in Scientific Writing such as communicating difficult concepts in a few sentences, I was not only able to understand presentations in topics I had never heard of but to communicate my own work with researchers who had never studied my own system. This conference opened my eyes to how interdisciplinary all research work is, regardless of the main field of study.
Figure 2. A picture of the conference lobby between sessions of the Ecological Society of America conference in Montreal, Canada. This was my first academic conference, and it promoted my interest in interdisciplinary work among ecological research.
Prompted by my newfound understanding of the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives, I enrolled in Insect Ecology taught by Dr. Eric LoPresti in the fall of 2022 at USC, which is my WTC experience. I had never had an interest in insects, and honestly found most insects gross. However, I wanted to expand my understanding of ecology beyond the marine focus I had from previous research and coursework. In this class, I learned the similarities of ecological concepts across study systems and found ways to apply them to my own interests in future research. I also learned of ecological interactions among insects that are fascinating and unique to that group. Furthermore, the big project in the class was to write a grant proposal. I was applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) at the time, so I was able to use the project to develop my proposal and get a variety of perspectives on my writing. My professor, an insect ecologist who had never worked with marine invertebrates before, edited and reviewed my marine-focused proposal. He brought forward ideas and concerns I had completely overlooked before and ensured my proposal could be understood by a reviewer no matter their own field of study. I was also able to use manuscript writing skills I had learned through the ACS Style Guide in the Scientific Writing Course at UVI to create an impactful grant proposal with limited space. The ability to propose important research within 2 pages is a skill I learned through summarizing detailed work in a few sentences in the Scientific Writing Course and creating a grant proposal in Insect Ecology. It was a helpful experience for both my grant-writing skills but also to learn how insightful reviews from a variety of perspectives can be. I plan to continue to approach professionals in fields alternative from my own for advice with writing and scientific communication in my graduate career and beyond. There is no telling what advice they may have or what you may have overlooked, and the different perspectives help to make your writing even stronger.
While my experiences only directly related to interdisciplinary work within the larger field of ecology, I have learned the importance of seeking advice and knowledge from professionals outside of your own study focus. In my GLD Pathway of Research, this has helped me do impactful research while at USC and continue to pursue ecological questions in my graduate career. The projects I have formed and pursued would not have been successful without the help of scientists in a variety of fields, and the writing I have done would not have been understandable to everyone who read it. While I pursue my PhD in Marine Ecology in the upcoming years, I will emphasize interdisciplinary advice and work within my own research. I believe that interdisciplinary work is the key to finding unique answers to important ecological questions of the natural world.