What does a dog-sled team reveal about interdisciplinary research?

In a wide-ranging presentation that touches on academic culture, personality traits, scientific values, and — yes, dog sledding — internationally known faculty member John C. Little will discuss strategies for improving interdisciplinary research at Virginia Tech beginning at 3 p.m. today in the Smithfield Room at The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center.

While harnessing the strengths of individual researchers and getting them to pull in the same direction is akin to the challenges of dog-sledding, interdisciplinary research has unique complexities that occur at human, disciplinary, and institutional interfaces, he says. 

"Successful collaborations require more time and effort (improving communication and building trust) but this is needed to overcome differences in work styles, personality traits, and disciplinary cultures," Little said. "But interdisciplinary success can lead to new scientific discoveries and new research and funding opportunities, as well as enable an institution to respond effectively to society’s needs. It can also be a lot of fun."

Little, the Charles E. Via Jr. professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, was one of the core faculty members on a $3.1 million National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship award called “EIGER:  Exploring Interfaces through Graduate Education and Research.” The project supported about 30 Ph.D. students, connecting 10 departments in four colleges, with a focus on interdisciplinary research.

A member of the Virginia Tech community since 1993, Little has spent extended periods in China, Spain, and Switzerland collaborating on research. His work focuses on indoor air pollution and lake and reservoir management — areas that deal with processes in environmental systems.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.


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