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Discovering true interdisciplinary research through study abroad at NC State

By Kat Selm, Graduate Student in Natural Resources 

“Interdisciplinary” is one of those buzz words you see often in grant proposals and job descriptions. Despite the word’s charm and ubiquity, I wonder how many of us actually know what it looks like in practice. The seemingly elusive concept of interdisciplinary research has always been appealing to me. However, before participating in IMAGINE South Africa, an NC State study abroad program, I had no reference in my life for which to judge its merits.

Our required research prior to departure concentrated on reading anything and everything about South Africa’s issues. Key to this experience was expanding our knowledge base beyond our core curriculum and college majors, as the aptly-titled course “Water Woes, People, Parks, and Pollution” suggests. This research led me to a documentary detailing the installation of “play pumps” in South Africa. Several organizations and governments partnered with the nonprofit PlayPumps International in order to distribute, what seemed like, a solution to the problem of water availability in rural South Africa. These brightly colored water pumps were designed like a playgrounds roundabout. The action of several children pushing and riding on the roundabout mechanically pumped and stored water in nearby tanks.

A pump with which children wanted to play that also provided a service for a community seemed like a win. A big push was made internationally to supply them to schools, private residences and village centers in southern Africa.  Years later, issues with the pumps started arising. There was no money in any organization’s budget for maintenance. In many villages and schools the old pumps sat there, rusting, either devoid of water or of the muscle power required to pump water. One of the main issues with the pumps was the physical accessibility for most of the communities’ residents; they only made sense in areas with lots of children. Even then, as you might suspect, the children were not a reliable labor force.

I did not realize how easy the solution to the problem of the play pumps could be until I learned about our water quality project in HaMakuya, South Africa. Our professor for the course, Dr. Melissa McHale, did something that is unfortunately not normative in the scientific community. She asked the people of HaMakuya what research they would like us to do. Research fatigue is a real phenomenon experienced by communities like HaMakuya. Given the problems in the region and the intense efforts of many schools’ study abroad programs, these areas receive high levels of surveys and testing. In many cases, this concentrated attention fails to deliver results or helpful information to the population of such areas.

Dr. McHale and her husband, Dr. David Bunn, as well as their colleagues have made a commitment to this community. They provide meaningful research that is not only important to them, but also supply results and progress for the individuals of the region. They communicate regularly with tribal councils, train local citizens in our water quality testing techniques, and provide a research hub that is run by and for the people of HaMakuya—Tshulu Trust Camp.

Interdisciplinary research, as I see it, is not just several scientists from different departments publishing together­—it is a way of operating, a way of performing research. It is inclusive of opinions, ideas, scientific disciplines, and people.  The very nature of the IMAGINE program is exemplary of what I now believe is true interdisciplinary research. The students and staff include urban ecologists, GIS analysts, hydrologists, artists and designers, conservation biologists, and chemical engineers among others. The research methodologies are just as diverse as the participants—scientific assessments of water quality paired with surveys of local villagers on water availability and coping strategies.  This process requires the engagement and participation of many locals, providing the community ownership of and input on a project designed to benefit them.

Without the scientific role-modeling of Dr. McHale, the different perspectives of our diverse group of young scholars, and the infusion of different cultural attitudes by all those we met in South Africa, I would not have been able to come to this very simple conclusion. Those who invented and inevitably installed the play pumps could have circumvented all their woes by simply asking people what their community wants and needs. Engineers can find a solution that has no real societal feasibility, but they would not know it unless they first worked with a social scientist. In this increasingly complicated and globally connected world, we need each other now more than ever. Interdisciplinary research is for those who work to effect change and find practical solutions. It is an attitude and a way to engage the world that I am glad I learned through the IMAGINE program before starting my professional life.

Read more about the IMAGINE SOUTH AFRICA project:

Learn more about how to get involved with this program, or others, by visiting the Study Abroad website,  or by attending the Study Abroad Fair at Talley Student Union on September 25 from 10:00am-3:00pm.

Tshulu Trust water quality sampling team in South Africa.
Tshulu Trust water quality sampling team in South Africa.