Transdisciplinary collaborations are at the heart of a university’s creative genius. But what makes them successful? For the How We Collaborate series, we ask collaborators to talk about the process of working together.

Some people sweat through the dog days of summer. Others study them, like Theodore Lim, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and Thomas Pingel, associate professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

After meeting on another collaborative project, Lim and Pingel earned a seed grant from the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment (ISCE) to research how vulnerable citizens think about heat resilience. Seeing the magenta glow of temperature data collected by infrared thermal cameras and drones helped low-income middle schoolers at a Roanoke summer camp visualize how much hotter their neighborhoods were than wealthier areas with less asphalt and more shade.

“It's really important to engage those communities, but how to engage them?” said Lim. “What results in them being able to connect their experiences to the data that they see and then to actually take action? That’s the missing piece that I think our collaboration gets at.” 

We spoke with Lim and Pingel about how and why their collaboration thrives, even when it’s hot out.

You two met on an earlier collaboration and then decided to work together again. Is this like when you're starting a new relationship? Is there something that tells you, "I can work with this person?"

Theo: There has to be enough in common so you can see the connection between your work and their work. But there should be enough different so that you're actually learning from that person's perspective. On that first project, Tom was leading the GIS portion and I was more on the urban planning and social side. I think we saw that we had very complementary perspectives. When there was a call for an internal seed funding grant from ISCE that explicitly called for interdisciplinary collaborations. I just reached out to you, Tom, and I was like, “Hey, do you want to do something on this?” 

How do you structure your collaboration?

Thomas: We met a lot initially. I think it was weekly, maybe every other week. Once we figured things out, it kind of rolled as a much more organic kind of thing. We don't have regular meetings, but we come together when we need to come together.

Theo: The boundaries are more defined than a lot of other collaborations that I'm currently in. It's like, “OK, we need to do something for this,” and then we do it. We wrote a paper, we had a couple grants that we put in proposals for. I'm on his student’s committee, he was on my student’s master's thesis committee.

What was your approach to writing a paper together?

Theo: I sent out a very concrete, “Can you write something for this section?” The other collaborator that we had from Virginia Tech was Jake Grohs, [an associate professor of engineering education] who brought the engineering education aspect to it, and then we had a co-author from University of Virginia. I said, “Tom, can you write this section? And Jake, can you write this section?” It ended up fusing pretty well.

Tom: There's something about this team where ideas get exchanged in a very efficient way. It takes a lot of the stress of a collaboration out when you know what's expected. Theo has a background in GIS, and so we speak a common language. Sometimes big multidisciplinary teams have a hard time talking to each other when there isn't enough of a shared language. 

How do you get past that? 

Theo: I'm not sure if I've really figured that out. I'm thinking of the terminologies people use on some of the other collaborative teams that I'm on. An example is the word “complexity,” right? You think that you're talking about the same thing, but different disciplines use that word differently and you only find out months later. They're like, “No, I'm not actually talking about that. I'm talking about this other thing with a whole other literature behind it that you’re not aware of.” 

Faculty member Thomas Pingel looks at an infrared image on his smartphone that casts a parking lot in bright yellows, oranges, and fuchsias that represent heat signatures.
Tom Pingel shows off one of the tech tools he and Theodore Lim used to engage middle schoolers in measuring the surface temperature of their urban neighborhoods: a smartphone attachment that creates infrared images. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Do you have a preferred size for collaborative groups?

Tom: I think the collaborations that I work on with two or three people are probably a lot better than the ones with 10 or 12 people. I don't always feel like I come out of those meetings with actionable things that I can do, whereas if I meet with a smaller group, I often feel like I know what needs to be done next.

Theo: I think the larger collaborations that I've been in can be really interesting in terms of learning different perspectives on a particular issue. But like Tom said, it can turn into a herding cats type of thing. 

What else makes for a successful collaboration?

Tom: Trust and being able to know that each person in the collaboration is going to hold up their end. We know the objective, and it's due this date, and it's far enough ahead that we can plan for it. There’s not a lot of all-nighters with this collaboration. 

Are there all-nighters with other collaborations?

Tom: Sure, yeah. That can be very stressful, particularly when it's a multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary team, where there are a lot of different pieces to assemble. And if you're worried about how those pieces are going to be assembled at the last minute, that's a very difficult thing. So yeah, I think it boils down to trust.

Theo: Trust is a good way to phrase it. I think also a common sense of urgency that things need to get done. There are some collaborations where you're not sure where it's going. Your hope is maybe this is going to be transformational and that's why it's taking a little bit to get ramped up. As a junior faculty member, you want to be part of transformational work, but it's also much riskier because you could be pouring a lot of energy and time into something that doesn't end up panning out in any measurable way. 

Tom: You’re never going to get to the point where all of your collaborations are going to always pay off. Sometimes you think a collaboration is going to work and it doesn't. 

Theo: I haven't been in a collaboration where I got zero out of it. Because you're still making relationships, you're getting exposed to other ideas and literatures that you wouldn't otherwise have gotten exposed to and you're meeting new people. Maybe the advice is diversification. You should have a range of things that could be really transformational and big and then maybe a few more concrete, faster moving collaborations to make sure that, especially as a junior faculty member, you keep producing things.

Speaking of moving faster, if you were in the Olympics, what sport would you want to compete in?

Tom: I've been fencing for a long time, so that would be fun. What I'd really like to do is pentathlon, which is a combination of fencing, running, swimming, horseback riding, and pistol shooting. 

Theo: Long-distance running. I'm not particularly good at it. But part of the reason why I like it is because I can eat more calories after running. If I was an Olympic long-distance runner, I'd get to eat a lot of things.

What things would you eat? 

Theo: French fries and fried chicken. I'm kind of a junk food guy.

Tom: I didn't know, Theo, that you like fried chicken. That's a favorite of mine. I think we should maybe exchange recipes sometime.

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