On the remarkable similarity between ‘the Avengers’ and interdisciplinary research

Last week it was my good fortune to sneak out and watch ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ when the kids weren’t looking. It has UEA in it (its the Avengers new training base). As the closing credits were rolling I said to myself ‘that’s not all that’s similar between the Earth’s mightiest heroes and my real true everyday life‘. The same is true for you too if you have learned to negotiate the rollercoaster of interdisciplinary(*) research.

Here’s how:

So you can tackle most research problems by a unique combination of using unusual metals, archery, the results of a poorly executed biochemistry experiment, magnetics, a large mallet and karate. There, shared the formula, now go use it.

(1) The Avengers have a wide range of complementary skillsets. Duh, yes. Not that insightful but the interesting part of that is this;

(2) they always solve problems best when one of them listens in to something someone else is working on and offers a solution the other one hadn’t though of. Its quite interesting starting out with a problem, knowing the technique and strategy you need to solve it and then cracking on. But its much more fun to find out there is an even better way to work on it. That’s one of the joys of working across disciplines for me. And then there’s;

(3) it’s as much about appreciating the gaps in knowledge as it is about knowing your own field. In Age of Ultron the extra-ordinarily naughty Stark causes a lot of the problems by bashing on without consulting his colleagues which, of course illustrates the need for;

(4) Communication, communication communication. If I was an Avenger obviously I would get to use one of those really cool earpieces and make transglobal communication instantly inside people’s heads. Yippee. How scary is that? Instead. Email, SKYPE,face-to-face and the telephone and lots of it. My absolute favourite being conference calls. If I had my time again with the grants I have now, I’d budget LOTS more meetings (face-to-face ones, and some writing retreats. Really. The Avengers I know are all on way too many missions at any one time).

(5) The realisation that as you get older you quite often have to be the one who stays back at Base but kind of knows where everyone is as they battle the baddies (formerly known as ‘the research problem’). This is only acceptable to me if it means I get to be Nick Fury. Any project worth its salt needs a Nick Fury (and no mistake) or it just turns into ‘parallel play’ rather than collaboration. There is nothing wrong with parallel play per se but it can lead to the words that killed a thousand research proposals *whisper* incremental advance (nothing wrong with that either..!)

This is Nick Fury. He is so senior he has a REALLY BIG earpiece thing AND a walkie-talke and uses them simultaneously. He knows the power of really good communication alright.
This is Nick Fury. He is so senior he has a REALLY BIG earpiece thing AND a walkie-talke and uses them simultaneously. He knows the power of really good communication alright. Sadly his eye got poked out by a team member who got about cross about all those emails.

Finally a sad un-fact

(6) UEA isn’t actually the new training base for the Avengers. Not yet, anyway.

(*) OK, Yes. I do recognise in this context, strictly, I am talking about multi-disciplinary research (where a group of researchers with different skills come together to solve one problem) as opposed to interdisciplinary research (where a variety of different techniques are used to solve one problem) or even transdisciplinary research (where you basically even involve your granny by getting her to knit you a nice new bobble hat for the fieldwork). But, its all about the _doing_ not the defining, in the end.

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