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The conference “crashers”: What are a geophysicist, a climate modeller, and a geochemist doing at a Social Sciences conference?

On 5th November 2014 the South West Doctoral Training Centre organised their third annual conference for postgraduate students at the University of Bath. Students and staff from the Universities of Bath, Bristol and Exeter filled the conference venue with a vibrant atmosphere throughout the day, giving great insight on different methods of collaboration. The theme of the conference was in fact “Integrating Perspectives”.

Alice, Jan Peter and Dirk
The three of us – Jan Peter, Dirk, and Alice – are three PhD students part of an EU-funded Marie Curie Training Network (MEDGATE) and within our project collaboration is key. Dirk, normally based at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, is currently visiting us in Bristol to make this collaboration even more active. Even if we are not exactly social scientists, we thought that this conference would represent a great occasion to introduce the dynamics of our interaction to a broader audience. We presented a poster (“How did the sea get so salty?”) outlining the collaboration within the MEDGATE project, but we were also selected for an oral presentation. This was centred on the collaboration between the three of us and we performed it as a three-person act. Preparing and rehearsing it together was actually great fun! The presentation was then followed by a lively panel discussion and a very active Q&A session.

Even though our own climate-related disciplines may seem far away from the Social Sciences realm, we had great interactions with the other participants and this proved to be a very interesting day. We all definitely got something useful out of it!

A multidisciplinary approach

"The collaboration between us and other scientists consists of social interactions and we want these cooperations to be as rewarding as possible for both parties. A great aspect of this conference was the major focus given to the benefits that collaboration and dialogue can bring to research in every discipline. Professor Hugh Lauder (University of Bath) and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Bristol) also found the time to actively participate in the meeting and they gave two inspiring keynote speeches. The first keynote focused on the deveopment of graduate wages in the context of a high unemployment rate. This structural problem will continue to concern future generations unless an efficient solution can be found. The second keynote dealt with the perception of climate change in the general public. Despite the general consensus among scientists on the evidence that climate change is happening, how can this still be widely perceived to be a hoax in some parts of public life?" --- Jan Peter

Interaction and discussion

"The day set the scene well for interaction and discussion on three levels. (1) Each of the student presentations were actively put into perspective by the keynote speakers and the audience. (2) The poster display allowed time for more in depth discussion. (3) Personal experiences could be shared over coffee, lunch or evening drinks, but were, further, successfully enforced in the so called “fish bowl” discussions. During these, the participants sit around an inner circle, in which the discussion takes place. All members can drop in and out of that inner circle, depending on whether they want to contribute to the current discussion topic or not. This gave the opportunity for almost the whole audience to be involved, but in a very casual environment".  --- Dirk

Make it happen!

"Most people seemed intrigued by how the interaction between the three of us (and the rest of the project) happens and one of the main questions that was raised was “Do we need facilitators to make these collaborations happen and how do we find the time to make them work?”. These and other aspects were also tackled during some final Skills Workshops. Representatives of the Career and Graduate Development at the University of Bath reminded us of the importance of keeping an open mind during the PhD, be ready for whatever gets thrown at us, and find a way to turn that into what we want it to be. This was defined as “Planned happenstance”, which on our side involves five main steps: curiosity, persistence, flexibility, optimism, and risk taking".   --- Alice

A common language

The final panel discussion, including the keynote speakers and Professor Anne Barlow (University of Exeter), summarised the main themes of discussion that emerged throughout the day and gave rise to more interesting reflections from both the panellists and the audience. One key issue that immediately became clear to all of us is the need for a “common language”, which is fundamental to improve interdisciplinary cooperation. The MEDGATE project is specifically based on multidisciplinary collaboration, so we have been tackling this challenge from the very beginning. Throughout the duration of the project, skill-specific workshops were organised by the participants specialised in each of the different disciplines. This allowed us to train each other and therefore create a background understanding, in order to facilitate communication.

The importance of pushing these interdisciplinary boundaries is of key relevance in the context of collaboration between the social and natural sciences, which need each other to convey their respective messages to the society.

From the conference twitter feed:

So maybe we didn’t crash this conference after all?
This blog is written by Alice Marzocchi (School of Geographical Sciences), Jan Peter Mayser (School of Chemistry), Cabot Institute, University of Bristol and Dirk Simon, visiting from Utrecht University.
Alice Marzocchi
Jan Peter Mayser
Dirk Simon

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