the Interdisciplinary experience at ESOF2020

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“Oh, oh, this could be something…” I think that was pretty much the first thought that came to me when I took part in a virtual meeting in preparation for the ESOF conference during my internship at the Centre for Dialogue. ESOF- that means EuroScience Open Forum. ESOF is a pan-European science conference founded in 2004. It is the largest European platform for interdisciplinary exchange in the scientific context of research and innovation. In principle, anyone can take part in it. It brings together scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians and of course so-called “early-career researchers“, i.e. young scientists.

To this last group one could also count the people with whom I conferred at the Zoom meeting mentioned at the beginning. Although I got to know our interdisciplinary project group, which came from different parts of Germany as well as from different regions in Poland, I honestly had no idea after an hour of discussion what our topic was.

Who does not know such experiences: In the exchange in another language (English) and about a foreign subject area (graphene) with foreign people, it can sometimes come to difficulties. Especially as our group was not only made up of participants with different specialisations, but also because of our different cultural background. The group consisted of several engineers from a university in Poland, a Polish linguist and a Polish artist, as well as a human geographer from Berlin and a theologian from Tübingen, and myself, who studies sociology and physical geography in Frankfurt. It’s actually nice to get the opportunity to work in such an interdisciplinary way. Nevertheless, I complained inwardly that I should work on this project in the coming months.

But the anger disappeared almost as quickly as it had come, because I was pleased, despite everything, to have the opportunity to participate in a major international scientific conference. So I asked my Polish colleagues what this graphene is and quickly learned that it is a kind of “miracle material”. Science has been interested in the study of graphene for some years now, which, one might have guessed from its name, is closely related to graphite, which is found in pencils, for example. Graphene has remarkable chemical and physical properties and, depending on how it is processed, can be used in many different ways. For example, the Polish developers I could work with used graphene as a water filter. After these initial problems had been solved, I threw myself into the group work with great enthusiasm and quickly realised that the others felt the same. Together with my two German colleagues, who study human geography and theology, as well as the Polish linguist and the artist, the five of us discussed the humanities and social science aspects that we wanted to discuss and present at the ESOF conference in connection with graphene. Everyone enjoyed working together, even if it was difficult at times.

And, what can I say, it was a wonderful experience. Because in the course of working together, we helped each other to understand each other’s points of view, including scientifically, and supported each other wherever we could. Of course, it was sometimes very challenging and difficult, but it was worth all the effort. The result was an exciting project of which we were all proud in the end. And this is exactly why the EuroScience approach is so important: even as a young aspiring scientist, you get the opportunity to present your topics on a large platform. In addition, great importance is attached to interdisciplinary exchange.

And unfortunately this is not at all self-evident. At least I have had the experience during my studies that the natural sciences in particular still have a lot to learn in the area of interdisciplinary cooperation. I study sociology and physical geography, so I’ve experienced first-hand the differences in the education and orientation of the various scientific disciplines. In sociology, we often had the opportunity to choose seminars that are also open to other disciplines, even to natural scientists. In these courses we dealt with exciting and interesting topics in a more or less holistic way and although the working methods were sometimes very different, we were always able to learn a lot as a team. Unfortunately, we completely lacked this nice interdisciplinary experience in geography. No one should misunderstand me, we had great project seminars and also learned and worked on exciting things, group work was also the order of the day, but the interdisciplinary approach was missing. And when I exchange ideas with other scientists, they very often reflect my experiences. But especially in today’s globalised world, where we face multiple problems together and across borders, it is important to work together to solve the problem. And, of course, it is equally essential to look at such problems as holistically as possible. In my opinion, this is only possible if scientists look beyond their own horizons and are also interested in the views of other disciplines. Together, you can grow from such challenges and learn things that you would otherwise never have considered an aspect of the problem.

Written by Tamara Rexroth, Intern at Centre for Dialogue, originally published by the Centre for Dialogue and accessible here.

This article is part of a Special Issue about ESOF 2020 – held in Trieste, Italy from 2 to 6 September 2020.

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