“Nothing is hard, only new” – navigating interdisciplinary graduate research

In this guest post, Kellen Marshall shares the realistic barriers of interdisciplinary work as a doctoral student.

Marshall is a native Chicagoan and current doctoral candidate of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She is also the Director of the George Washington Carver Research Station at Eden Place Nature Center on Chicago’s south side. Kellen has used her passion for the field of ecology to connect communities of color to conversations surrounding urban ecosystems. She was the host of the first environmental show on WVON Chicago 1690 AM called “Living Healthy, Living Green” as well as previous owner of Roots & Shoots Organic Gardening. Her research interests are within urban ecosystems, with strong ties to the discipline of environmental justice through studying ecosystem services of green infrastructure. Kellen has been a leader in the SEEDS program, has participated within ESA in various roles, and is a former recipient of the Graduate Student Policy Award. Tweet to her @greenkels


Kellen MarshallWhen I entered graduate school I had no clue that already I possessed a multidisciplinary perspective.  I now see it as both a gift and a curse.  The gift is that I enjoy working at the crossroads between urban ecology and environmental justice or “EJ”.

However, the latter discipline is also associated with advocacy or activism.  EJ is both a social movement and active area of research that explores unequal distribution of environmental burdens on poor communities and communities of color. Environmental inequities and racism has tremendous implications for the sustainability of natural systems and ecosystem services.

Thus one barrier I faced in my interdisciplinary work was maintaining objectivity.  Staying away from what I knew to be true, or what I believed to be true, through my personal experiences as a woman of color in Chicago was a challenge, to say the least. I was misinterpreting my worldview, and I had to step away from allowing my life experience answer my questions and make room for Kellen, the scientist, to investigate.  This separation did not cause me to question my perspective, it forced me to find the boundaries of existing interdisciplinary research and extend those boundaries through engaging in what we consider to be action ecology.

I felt a deep charge to connect the social benefits of studying ecosystem services, EJ, and segregation patterns and this biased my research immensely.  My co-advisor and committee member, Emily Minor, pushed me to let the research tell the story. She explained to me that I can’t already have the answer before I begin my research. I can’t design my project to support what I want to see.

At risk was my ability to learn how science supports the generation of knowledge, and tradeoffs between decisions.  At risk, was abandoning a hypothesis-driven approach to exploring people and nature.  At risk, was my own growth as an ecologist, and my professional ability to communicate unbiased data and even the playing field between two very historically contentious disciplines.

It is not my role as a scientist to say what is right or what is wrong. It is my job as the scientist to provide the facts — facts that have shown themselves to be supported through an unbiased, hypothesis-driven approach. For some interdisciplinary scientists this line of thought is second nature. However, as a first year doctoral student it escaped me. It has taken me almost half a decade to really understand.

Another aspect of interdisciplinary research in graduate school is becoming bilingual, developing your ability to communicate within your field, but also across fields.  Building a robust and diverse community of research professionals has benefited me in this area tremendously.  In a sense, the interdisciplinary movement reminds me of the cart before the horse. For example, the framework for funding sources that would support cross-discipline research appears to be unpredictable at some level. You can have a project that, on the one hand, fits the general submission requirements, and on the other hand doesn’t completely win over one or more reviewers.  In this instance, the reviewer could be unfamiliar with your discipline or find error in how you are adapting concepts, methods and analysis from another discipline. Also, there may be some discrepancy on what the reviewer finds to be interdisciplinary in comparison to what I the student find interdisciplinary. An example of such are comments from a recent proposal I submitted:

Reviewer 1: “This proposed project is truly multi- disciplinary in nature.”

Reviewer 2:” This is a solid proposal, but too narrow to be funded by an interdisciplinary award. If the applicant wanted to make this proposal interdisciplinary, one would have to incorporate the study of social aspects.”

This is the reality of interdisciplinary research. It seems as if everyone has a different definition of what is and is not multidisciplinary.  While this is a barrier that is inherent in research, I would like to call attention to the significance of it for young scientists at the doctoral training level.  While interdisciplinary research is promoted, it can feel like a dead end to a graduate student, as funding and publishing is already highly competitive. Essentially, it becomes unattractive and time consuming, and we run the risk of being perceived as underproductive, when in reality we are doing what science is supposed to do: explore new ways of thinking, asking, and doing.

We as researchers, I believe, are moving into a realm of science that is acknowledging the complexity of connections between fields. As I interpret this, we are willing as researchers to allow flexibility within our disciplines, which will result in novel sub-disciplines — an evolution of thought, so to speak. I guess all I am saying is that this is hard, lol.  But a professor once told me that “nothing is hard, only new”. That’s really what we should keep in mind. Interdisciplinary science the way we are applying it in our research generation is relatively new, it’s exciting, and it will be challenging, yet it will generate a community of professionals that are employable in academia (Colón-Rivera et al, 2013) and other areas, and those professionals will bring the objectivity of research-based inquiry into other fields.

Previous posts by Kellen Marshall:


Author: Liza Lester

ESA's Communications Officer came on board in the fall of 2011 after a Mass Media Science and Engineering fellowship with AAAS and a doctorate in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Washington.

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *