One of the core goals of Imperial is to do transdisciplinary research. What does this mean?
Normal disciplinary research is easy to see. This means chemists work on chemistry problems, engineers work on engineering problems, business people work on business problems.
In the real world though, few research questions fit neatly into a discipline.
An example: improving solar panels
Suppose you’re concerned about climate change. You want to help the world transition towards using renewable energy sources. You think improving solar panels is a good way to do this. Is this a chemistry problem, an engineering problem or a business problem?
- Improving the chemistry of the photovoltaic cell so it captures more energy from sunlight is good – but what if this makes the panels difficult to manufacture, or too expensive for most homes and businesses?
- Improving the engineering of a solar panel so it’s completely recyclable (cradle-to-cradle manufacturing) is good – but not if this significantly reduces energy capture or makes them too expensive to install.
- Improving the economic attractiveness of solar panels, for example with grants or being able to resell excess energy to the grid, is good – but not if the panels themselves are polluting to make or don’t generate enough energy to make a difference to your carbon footprint.
Working with disciplines in parallel
So the quick answer to this is to get three researchers – a chemist, an engineer and a business person – in a room and they all work on the problem together. It can be difficult because the researchers are likely to have different vocabulary to describe the issues they see, and have different ideas about what matters. Have you ever got frustrated because somebody just didn’t understand you, or because they just don’t think the thing that matters to you is important? Yup, researchers too.
But a lot of this kind of research gets done. There are people who really like these difficult cross-cultural conversations. Which is good, isn’t it?
Working with disciplines braided together
There’s a minority of people who take this further, and learn to think in more than one discipline at the same time. Like being bilingual, but it’s also like having two sets of values at the same time.
This was me! I studied chemistry, and then applied it to archaeological textiles. I had to learn to understand a little piece of medieval wool textile as a valuable imported object (economics, history), an example of vaðmál (technology studies), a sample of sheep hair (agriculture), a sample of keratin (protein science), and an indicator of an ancient ecosystem (biogeochemistry). That was deeply satisfying for me, and I can’t really explain why. But it’s not to everyone’s taste.
IMSE is transdisciplinary
Working across disciplines is not just what we do but who we are at IMSE. So among IMSE Affiliates, we have teams of researchers who are:
- developing flexible solar panel materials that are water-resistant to make them easier to integrate into clothing, accessories or mobile phones.
- working out how to optimise solvents which can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, to enable affordable CO2 drawdown.
- developing 3D printing of hydrogels which can act as a substitute for soil, to feed more people worldwide.
- building artificial cells which react to heat or light to communicate with living cells, to enable new medical treatments.
IMSE is one of the initiatives that Imperial has taken to promote research that spans disciplinary boundaries. We tackle this problem in a number of ways:
- Organising events which appeal across disciplines – getting new mixtures of people to meet is a good start.
- Supporting research work carried out by teams of researchers who come from multiple departments and faculties.
- Publicising the transdisciplinary work we are involved in – have a listen to our podcast for examples!
- Training a new generation of researchers with skills from more than one discipline.
- Collaborating with industry who are generating transdisciplinary research questions.
Your gut feeling
What’s your attitude to disciplines? Are you naturally drawn to one, or do you like overlapping contrasting ways of thinking?