UO researcher trails an intriguing subject: other researchers

Amazon rainforest

While an international team of scientists researches environmental change in the Brazilian Amazon, UO geographer Katie Meehan will be investigating a different angle of the project: the researchers themselves.

Meehan wants to understand how international partnerships function and how the scientific community could do interdisciplinary research better. To investigate this question, she will examine how scientists from different places and backdrops collaborate on environmental research and how they might be able to more effectively integrate knowledge across borders.

“We want to understand how different people stitch knowledge together across cultures, backgrounds, borders, disciplines and between people who work on different scales of analysis, from microbiomes to ecosystems,” Meehan said.

The project will focus on a team of scientists who are all offering robust insights into why the Brazilian Amazon is changing and what might be done about it.

“We will examine their science as a cultural practice and try to identify pathways for more effective and equitable practices of environmental knowledge integration and interdisciplinary science,” she said.

The National Science Foundation awarded Meehan a $180,000 grant to pursue the research through her new Knowledge Integration Project. The grant will fund three years of work, as well as relevant publications, resources and a public exhibition based on her findings.

In addition to digging into the nature of international research partnerships, Meehan also is interested in examining how the public understands environmental change and addressing that issue through the work she produces at the culmination of the project.

The idea for the research stems from a multi-year Fulbright project in which Meehan worked with scholars from Canada, the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America on climate change research in Latin America. While they were out in the field, Meehan observed some surprising and unexpected things about how the international team of researchers interacted over time.

“The way the Fulbright project was designed, the emphasis was not as much on the outcomes as it was on the person-to-person engagement and cultural exchange,” Meehan said. “These components are often underplayed in the scientific field, but we found that this interpersonal exchange was the most powerful means of transformation for the people involved.”

Meehan said that was surprising because the partnership highlighted the benefit of more emotional skills that are not often associated with scientific work, things like relationship-building and empathy. She found that the team was able to build a successful foundation for collaboration because the project nurtured those skills in its participants.

“It catalyzed the hard work that I think is necessary for international and interdisciplinary partnerships,” she said.

Watching this unfold catapulted her interest in how international collaborations function and what best practices might look like, and that led her to pursue the new project.

Meehan plans to develop a toolkit and a series of trainings for the scientific community based on her findings to help researchers adopt best practices. It’s still early in the project, but Meehan hopes the results could help catalyze a shift in thinking about how to confront serious global challenges through collaboration.

She also predicts she could face a challenge herself introducing these concepts to the scientific community. She said many researchers are looking for a formulaic approach to international and interdisciplinary collaboration, but she expects the dynamic nature of the partnerships will prevent her from identifying a single formula for collaboration.

Meehan looks at the project as a study into how people work, which helps explain why it’s unlikely she will produce a one-size-fits-all recipe to apply to scientific partnerships. Humans are complex ingredients and she suspects her observations in the United States and Brazil might mirror some of what she saw during the Fulbright project in Latin America, when qualities like empathy and relationship-building were so key to successful teamwork.

“Some people are desperate for a recipe for interdisciplinary science collaboration,” she explained. “We are still just beginning the research, but I suspect our observations might point to the importance of negotiations, empathy and other complex skills that diverge from a formulaic strategy.”

For the first phase of the project, Meehan will travel to laboratories and field sites in the United States and the Brazilian Amazon to observe the scientists in action and conduct interviews. She will also train student research assistants in her tactics to help them hone qualitative research skills, learn scientific writing and develop their critical and creative thinking.

After the research is complete, Meehan will develop resources to help researchers adopt best practices for international and interdisciplinary partnerships. She will also publish articles, post materials on her website and produce a public exhibit that will be displayed at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in 2020.

This won’t be the first time she’s integrated art into her geography work. She frequently takes her classes to the UO art museum to consider human geography through exhibits and an examination of how artists are representing matters like migration, borderlands and belonging.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this project will be inviting the public into this discussion about science through art,” Meehan said. “I want this work to have a broader reach and to challenge the way that we’ve done things before. Both through the research we’re doing and through the way we share that research.”

By Emily Halnon, University Communications