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First-hand accounts of a successful spring school for early career researchers

Four participants of the Interdisciplinarity in DigiTech Research Spring School, which took place in April 2024 in Prague, received CHANSE-funded bursaries to attend the event. All four researchers demonstrated not only a keen interest in interdisciplinary collaboration and DigiTech but also a clear vision of how the spring school could further their professional development.


Here Gareth Osborne, postdoctoral fellow; Anna Rezk, PhD student; Julia Zbróg, final-year psychology student and Diane Peck, PhD student share their personal experiences and reflections on the event.


Gareth Osborne, postdoctoral fellow at Bath Spa University


I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Interdisciplinarity in DigiTech Research Spring School. The three days were so welcoming and well-organised. The talks and participatory workshops created a real sense of thrilling international discussion and exchange of ideas, all against the backdrop of the beautiful Czech capital of Prague.


These kinds of events will become increasingly pressing as academia becomes more focused on creating and evidencing real-world impact. I have seen from my own practice-based research how seeking such impact demands a more interdisciplinary approach. I research immersive experiences that bring learning to life for children. Because I create and stage these experiences in order to study them, I have to assemble interdisciplinary teams of creative practitioners from fields as diverse as digital storytelling, immersive technologies, theatre, children’s publishing, illustration, and education. Staging the immersive experiences with children in real-world settings like museums, libraries, theatres, festivals and schools requires a collaborative approach to working with the staff of those places: teachers, archive curators, theatre directors, librarians, child safety officers, teachers, and digital engagement managers. All bring their own perspectives and needs, their own disciplinary understanding of the spaces in which the research must negotiate its avenues towards impact. The children I work with, as participants and co-creators of research, will also intuitively draw in different practices and disciplines as they contribute in their own ways and practices, be that drawing, roleplay, theatre or gaming, their negotiation of building design and architecture, and their manipulation of digital technologies.


It is clear that researchers who are striving towards impact in real-life settings will not be able to depend on one discipline in order to understand such rich and multi-faceted engagement, but will need to be nimble and responsive, drawing on theory and perspective from different fields in order to answer practice-related questions as they arise. It can be daunting for those attempting interdisciplinary research and threatening for those more used to focusing on one discipline. We should strive to remain welcoming to researchers arriving at our discipline from others, and be open to their questions, even if they might differ in language from the ones we are used to being asked. They will undoubtedly have been formulated no less rigorously through different bibliographies, practices and disciplinary preoccupations beyond our own.


On my personal interdisciplinary research journey it has been amazing to see how similar questions around digital technologies are arising in different contexts. Right now, I’m on a research field trip through Europe, Asia and the USA, enquiring into the use of immersive technologies with children. From St. Paul’s Cathedral to the Children’s Museum in Prague, the National Library of France to the Prado Art Gallery in Madrid, there is a real questioning taking place of how technology might allow children to convey more accurately what is important to them in their engagement with these places, and for adults to understand and better adapt their programmes to their needs. The same DigiTech tools that these organisations are striving to deploy with their diverse audiences can be harnessed by researchers too in collaboration with industry to share knowledge across disciplines and further the frontiers of academia.


Gareth Osborne is a postdoctoral fellow at Bath Spa University.


He can be contacted at g.osborne@bathspa.ac.uk or on Twitter at @garethosborneUK


Anna Rezk, PhD student at the University of Edinburgh


Attending the DigiTech Spring School was a valuable experience that helped reshape my understanding of interdisciplinary research, digital technology, and the evolving landscape of academia. Over the course of the program, I explored the significance of interdisciplinary approaches in research, particularly in addressing complex, ‘wicked’ problems.

 

Wicked problems, by their nature, are multifaceted and resistant to simple solutions. They span various domains, requiring input from multiple disciplines to be adequately addressed. During the spring school, we engaged in activities and discussions that illustrated how combining expertise from different fields can lead to more comprehensive and innovative solutions. For instance, tackling access to education for girls in conflict regions cannot be the sole responsibility of educators; it necessitates the collaboration of human rights activists, policymakers, sociologists, technologists, and healthcare professionals. This holistic approach not only provides a deeper understanding of the issues but also paves the way for more sustainable and impactful outcomes.

 

The program also underscored the critical role of collaboration, especially when it comes to securing funding for research proposals. We learned that in today's competitive academic environment, proposals that demonstrate a collaborative effort between diverse fields are often more compelling and likely to receive funding. This is because funding bodies recognise the value of interdisciplinary research in generating robust, well-rounded insights that can drive significant societal benefits and be impactful. Effective collaboration hinges on selecting the right mix of disciplines and ensuring all team members are aligned towards a common goal.

 

The changing face of academia was another key topic of discussion. The rise of interdisciplinary research is reshaping academic structures and cultures, breaking down traditional silos and encouraging a more integrative approach to knowledge creation. This shift is crucial in addressing real-world issues that do not conform to disciplinary boundaries. Additionally, the relevance of digital technologies today opens yet another relevant angle to consider when undertaking such interdisciplinary work.

 

The DigiTech Spring School was very beneficial and informative. It reinforced the importance of interdisciplinary research, highlighting ways to frame research projects in funding applications, as well as ways to facilitate and manage collaborations.


Julia Zbróg, final-year psychology student at Maria Grzegorzewska University


As a final-year psychology student at the Maria Grzegorzewska University, attending the Interdisciplinarity in DigiTech Research Spring School in Prague was a precious and enjoyable experience. Thanks to a CHANSE-funded bursary, I had the chance to connect with researchers from various fields and explore the latest trends in digital research. This event not only expanded my academic knowledge but also deepened my interest in combining digital technology with psychology.

 

The three-day event was highly interactive, featuring hands-on learning sessions and engaging discussions. Interacting with experts and peers from both the humanities and sciences highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and effective communication in addressing today’s complex problems.

 

A standout session was led by Prof. Ruth Ogden, focusing on stakeholder engagement. We explored topics such as digital and environmental sustainability, ethical research practices, and non-extractive research methods. This session provided practical insights into balancing possibilities with ethical considerations in research. Additionally, Dr. Jamie Davies from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council shared his advice on navigating the funding landscape. He emphasized the importance of maintaining an up-to-date online presence and aligning research with funders' interests.

 

Talking with researchers at different career stages and involved in various research processes was particularly enlightening and fun. We exchanged insights on topics ranging from brain data analysis to community engagement. Hearing about these varied experiences was inspiring and broadened my perspective as I find my place in the academic world. These conversations also highlighted that successful collaboration hinges on transparency, patience, effective delegation, critical thinking, negotiation, and recognizing each team member's strengths and our own cognitive biases.

 

Reflecting on the spring school, I am grateful for how it sparked new ideas for my research interests. The event underscored the significance of interdisciplinary research in addressing societal issues. Learning from and collaborating with researchers from different backgrounds showed me the power of interdisciplinary efforts in driving innovation. For any graduates, early career researchers, or anyone interested in interdisciplinary research, I highly recommend participating in similar events or seeking opportunities to engage with passionate experts in their fields.


Diane Peck, PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University


Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the beautiful city of Prague and attend the Interdisciplinarity in DigiTech Research Spring school. The 3-day event was meticulously planned and ran so well, it is hard to believe this was their inaugural symposium. With a wide variety of activities, lectures, workshops, discussions and talks there was something for every researcher to partake in and learn from. What made it more enjoyable was the collaboration of multiple universities and professionals, which I felt led to an even richer learning experience.


Reflecting on what I learned the most proved surprisingly quite difficult, I initially thought I could easily rank the sessions in order. However, that is not the case, each session encouraged me to delve deeper and see things from different vantage points, it was like continuously peeling layers off an onion. Therefore, I thought I would reflect on a few that have left lasting impressions on me.


Starting with understanding the importance of interdisciplinarity research through integrating several disciplines to answer complex problems, also known as ‘wicked problems’. Then very kindly giving us our own wicked problem to try and solve in groups, it led to some very interesting discussions and perspectives but unfortunately no overall solution. This also helped me identify the key disciplines that are incorporated within my own studies (surprisingly, far more than I had considered) and how this will strengthen my research outcomes.


Following this, the progression into how interdisciplinarity is used in digital research, I didn’t think this would be too relevant to my own research, but I was wrong. This keynote was thought-provoking e.g., what happens to data in cyber space, who can access it and is it ethical. It also demonstrated how digital research overlaps into many other disciplines especially as access has become far more mobile and accessible for most people now ultimately making research via technology far easier e.g., completion of surveys and returning electronically.


Subsequent lectures, workshops, discussion and talks followed the next day, exploring an array of topics, ranging from how to secure funding, engage with stakeholders and several art-based approaches lectures, all of which were again insightful and really highlighted different ways to explore and engage with research. Closing of this day was the panel discussion on how to make it in academia. This was something every student and academic should attend. The reflections from expert academics from several countries encouraged self-reflection and the importance of self-care. It was humbling to hear their narratives on overcoming personal challenges and rejections to progress in academia. It helped to understand what makes a good researcher, how to prepare for the next steps, embracing opportunities, accessing training and conferences and ultimately the importance having a good supervisory team makes to your research.


The final day provided the opportunity to partake in 2 workshops out of 4 whilst I would have personally like to have attended them all, as everything else I had attended had been so interesting. I opted for the ‘ethics of digital and social media research’, which was a very informative session and helped me to further understand my own ethical process, the position of power and the increased vulnerabilities at each stage of my research.


Then the final workshop of the spring school, ‘Involvement of vulnerable groups and participants with trauma’ which I felt was so beneficial to my research, I could write far more on this session, however, I felt I needed to include an overview of the entire event. This session explored promoting positive engagement with participants, trauma from how the person experiences it and avoiding triggers that can resurface it. We were encouraged to work in 2 groups to explore what skills and qualities are needed for successful participatory research from one of 2 angles, either as someone who had first-hand experience of trauma or as a researcher working with a participant who had experienced trauma. Reinforcing the importance of relationship, trust building, involvement and time throughout the entire research and the understanding of how reducing power imbalances can make to successful research.


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