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Number 33, April 2002

Student Editorial

Life as an Interdisciplinary Scientist: Am I being set up?

As I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel for my dissertation work, I sometimes wonder if it's an approaching freight train. Over the past several years, I have worked on interdisciplinary, stakeholder-driven research as part of the NOAA Office of Global Problems Southwest Climate Assessment Project (CLIMAS). By choosing an interdisciplinary path have I helped or hobbled my career opportunities? What lies ahead?

While an undergraduate student in Physics at New York University, I met Marty Hoffert, a charismatic faculty member researching climate sensitivity and global warming. He is also active in developing advanced alternative energies to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. I was inspired by his philosophy of "study the problem, and help fix it," which is something that slow neutron researchers, like myself, didn't hear very often.

I continued on at the University of Arizona Hydrology department under Soroosh Sorooshian. I was doing physical climate modeling research when the 1997-98 El Niño occurred. El Niño's impact on Arizona water resources is among the strongest in the nation. Given that water is life in the desert, it seemed obvious to me that water managers would be scrambling to act.

I joined the CLIMAS project, and shifted my research to look at how water managers in Arizona responded to the forecasts. I wanted to find out where they got their information, how they used it and how climate forecasts could be more useful. I got a crash course in survey skills by CLIMAS anthropologists and was then set loose to interview an array of decision makers.

When colleagues heard about what I was doing, I received such encouragement as "Can you get away with doing just that for your degree?" To get the approval of my committee, my Master's proposal included a disjointed (but now vestigial) section describing how I'd study the anti-correlation between summer and winter rainfall in Arizona (i.e. "real science"). Meanwhile, my cold-call interviews with users revived painful high school memories as a telemarketer.

To my surprise, it all worked out in the end. Eleven talks about my research (seven of which were invited) were given at local to international venues. Out-of-state newspapers called me to discuss my work. Others told me that such exposure is uncommon among Master's students. I found that some users didn't use the climate forecasts because they didn't know how good they were. In response, Holly Hartmann, a fellow Arizona student, and I set out to do user-oriented "consumer reports"-style forecast evaluations. To learn how to evaluate forecasts for ranchers, we partnered with social scientists studying the vulnerability of ranching to climate. We gave an introductory talk about the effects of El Niño in Arizona to 17 groups (approximately 500 ranchers and farmers total) and afterwards we listened to their concerns and found out more about their operations. Most recently, I'm developing a way to get climate information into operational seasonal water supply outlooks.

This extensive stakeholder interaction has been a truly rewarding experience. Nonetheless, I can see how interdisciplinary research is not for everyone. Consider some of the downfalls:

No respect. Although my physics degree gave me more math training than most advanced engineering programs, some colleagues look down their noses at me as a "soft" scientist. I've heard social science described as little more than "common sense" and "journalism." If you think that social science gets the same respect as natural science, compare the research funding for these endeavors.

Extra work. Interdisciplinary research is not easy. It involves mastering not only your own field, but another as well. Stakeholder interaction can also be challenging and consuming. Science has historically been a safe harbor for the shy and inarticulate. Personally, I'm rattled when encountering hostile stakeholders. Someone once introduced me at a meeting of a rural cattlemen's group as "the scientist" and "global warming expert" from the "University" here to "teach you about climate change." Good thing they never found out I'm from New York City!

It's not all bad news, however. Some of the advantages include:

Guaranteed Employment. All complex natural resource issues require interdisciplinary solutions. As far as I can tell, none of these issues is going to go away soon. If you find your niche, job offers will come at you from all directions.

Societal Relevance. It's satisfying to work on real-world problems and to know that my work contributes to my community. Stakeholders are generally appreciative of the opportunity to talk with a scientist without an agenda. If stakeholders like what you're doing, they'll give you lots of positive strokes. Best of all, I can discuss my research with my mother.

To students, I say, "Live in New York, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in California, but leave before you get soft." Do the hard science first and get your credentials. Explore the "other side of the tracks," but don't tarnish your reputation too much. Also, make sure at least one member of your committee is sold on the idea of interdisciplinary science and is willing to defend your work against other committee members. Hang in there and enjoy the experience.

To funding and academic agencies: I think the reward structure needs to change, beyond just paying lip service to interdisciplinary research. I don't look forward to the day when I'm a faculty member being judged by my "peers" and they find that I haven't published in the most prestigious journals and have spent most of my time interacting with researchers outside my home department. Funding agencies must face the same problem. If I am the only researcher doing what I'm doing, how do they judge my success? Who do they send to evaluate me?

So far, I think interdisciplinary research is a great way of life. However, I can't help but worry about whether the infrastructure exists to foster and support scientists like myself. As my career progresses, I suppose I will find out. Look for a follow-up report in the April 2012 WeatherZine!

Thomas Pagano
Department of Hydrology
University of Arizona

Editor's note: Tom Pagano is a graduate student at the University of Arizona Department of Hydrology and Water Resources under advisor Soroosh Sorooshian. Next month he will be joining the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Portland as lead seasonal water supply forecaster for the Southwest U.S. He is also a music aficionado, with over 2,500 hours of music in his collection.