Going beyond what we know – how we can break down barriers between disciplines

As a research leader in chemical engineering, Prof. Jarka Glassey talks about venturing beyond traditional educational siloes to address global issues

By Ian Evans - July 10, 2020  5 mins
Elsevier editorial illustration World of Research

The women and men now joining the research community will be taking on the future challenges facing the world. To do this successfully, they will need to learn from a broad set of disciplines, understand how those disciplines interact, and reach beyond the siloes built into the traditional structures of academia.

Prof. Jarka Glassey, PhDDr. Jarka Glassey, Professor of Chemical Engineering Education at Newcastle University, Vice President Learned Society at the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), and Editor in Chief of the journal Education for Chemical Engineers, believes that greater collaboration and education between disciplines will help researchers meet those future challenges. As a research leader at a university, a key figure in more than one scientific society, and a journal editor, Jarka has clear ideas as to the role each of these channels can play:

If you look at any profession, you’ll see that the future generations are educated by people who have gone through a classical education themselves. As educators – I’m sorry to say – we have a tendency to teach just what we know. One of the things we’re trying to do at IChemE is challenge that. We want educators to look at things that they themselves may never have been exposed to.

It’s by crossing boundaries and sharing knowledge and new perspectives that researchers will be best placed to address global issues, Jarka said. She pointed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an example of how to achieve goals by combining approaches from a range of disciplines:

At IChemE, we’ve aligned our activity to be much closer to the SDGs. We’re looking at a range of areas, from energy to health to pure water production to vaccine production. We play a role in all of that and more. As a profession, we operate across all those sectors, but to succeed at them in a way that meets the SDGs, we have to work across disciplines.

Societies and journals each provide an avenue to put their communities in contact with ideas and concepts they may not be familiar with. By consciously pushing for the introduction and exploration of ideas from other disciplines, journal editors and society leaders can make that interdisciplinary learning even more purposeful. Jarka continued:

Institutions have to work hard to break down the barriers between disciplines. If you look at the way faculties are set up and the way societies are set up, everything is typically separated. You have the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Royal Society of Arts.

But this separation also offers an opportunity, Jarka said. While societies may be organized along disciplinary lines, they provide structure that can be used to promote interdisciplinary research. In that way, they can drive an interdisciplinary approach that otherwise wouldn’t happen:

I was recently on a panel at an event at the Royal Society, with arts and design people talking about how creativity is absolutely essential in science – and it also showed how the arts can learn a great deal from the sciences.

Universities also have a key role to play, Jarka added:

At Newcastle University, we recently created corporate centers of excellence, which won’t get funding unless they’re working across three faculties. That may be seen as  a blunt tool, but it’s a way of getting people talking to each other, when the siloed approach in ingrained. Interdisciplinary research will only happen if it’s supported and encouraged. We’re set up to be siloed, but I’m seeing more and more ways that universities drive that cross collaboration.

Certainly, when a project comes to my table at the IChemE Learned Society Committee, I don’t want to see that just chemical engineers are involved.

Bringing a more diverse range of perspectives to projects also helps ensure that human and ethical considerations are more thoroughly embedded. Societies and their journals provide an opportunity to introduce those considerations:

We want to see that students are engaged with the ethical elements of this work and putting it into practice. I’m a biochemical engineer, so, for example, I’ll challenge my chemical engineering students with recombinant DNA technology related ethical questions. How do they feel about cell gene therapies? Is it right to tinker with the genome? If you’re going to do this, what sort of safeguarding procedures do you have in place?

As educators, as journal editors, as society leaders, we can highlight these perspectives and help researchers realize that they’re engaging with considerations that are the specialty of other disciplines, such as social science.

As with the joint event between arts and sciences, Jarka notes that this knowledge exchange is two way:

One of the journals IChemE publishes is a sustainability journal. That’s a conversation we need to be a part of – not just because we need to look at how chemical engineering can be done in a sustainable way, but because as chemical engineers, we can bring a hugely important perspective to the sustainability conversation in terms of establishing what is technically possible.

IChemE is also leading the conversation on the ethical implementation of AI in engineering, again making use of its role as a society to press for knowledge sharing and interdisciplinary learning. Jarka explained:

With AI, the industry point of view often comes down to whether or not you can make money from it. So from an engineering professions point of view, we need to provide information on the tools that are available. But we want to embed that ethical consideration. So on a strategic level, we’re talking about that element with our members, and our leadership here is recognized by other engineering solutions.

Once again, it’s something we collaborate on, and by doing so, we can make a real impact.

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Written by

Ian Evans

Written by

Ian Evans

Ian Evans is Content Director for Global Communications at Elsevier. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier’s Global Communications Newsroom. Based in Oxford, he joined Elsevier six years ago from a small trade publisher specializing in popular science and literary fiction.

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