Laura: 'You have to be a knowledge base on your own'

At the time of my interview, Laura is in a transition phase. She has just obtained her PhD in physics for a dissertation on planetary science that was supervised by Adam and Rasmus, and now she is about to be hired as a post-doctoral researcher. Laura is trained to operate the facility on her own, but it will take at least another year until she will work without Adam’s immediate help. Her reflexive awareness impresses me and I am delighted by the clear and determined formulations she finds for her experiences in an interdisciplinary research environment.

Laura emphasizes that the planetary science group has been very valuable for her. The group offers “a center of focus for [your] studies" and is a reliable source of both financial and administrative support as well as expert advice from scholars in related fields: “so, I know that I from these people can get different views on the same things and I get a lot of help, at least that’s what I’ve used all of it for.” Help from scholars with a different area of expertise is essential, she underlines, because planetary science as a research field necessarily involves a scientific perspective that spans across the many narrow specialized niches covered by individual scientists. Therefore, two particular kinds of knowledge are to be acquired in interdisciplinary research. On the one hand, Laura, contrary to Laurits, points out that group members learn from each other about each other’s fields, particularly with respect to aspects specifically relevant to particular experiments such as, for example, the choice ofmaterials and instruments. This knowledge is highly context dependent. On the other hand, group members learn “what [they] can use each other for,” that is, to gain an understanding about “the field of expertise [they] each have.”

Laura has been involved in interdisciplinary science not only at the planetary science group, but also as a participant in a larger international research project. Planetary science is an interdisciplinary field and characterized, as she tells me, by “[...] the fact that the areas of interest are very separate.” Although they “overlap” in their common interest in planetary surfaces as an empirical phenomenon, scholars in the field and members of the planetary science group in particular “[...] don’t do the same things, we haven’t been trained to do the same things, we haven’t been taught to think in the same ways and that can actually be quite a hindrance sometimes.” As an example, she tells me about the difficulties faced by scientists from the international research project in which she participated when they talked about atmospheric particles:

[...] One of the things I found problematic, for example in the [international project], we had of course both geologists, physicists, atmospheric chemists, just talking about for example particles in the atmosphere, getting, just getting around the fact of what, what do we call the different particles. Are they sand? Are they dust? Is it silicates? I think we spent three months coming up with a definition of what size particles are what, because it turned out that everybody had their own system of size determination of particles. [...] So sands and grains and dust was defined in three or four different ways, just within the about 50 or 100 scientists that were on [the international project].

Interestingly, Laura has made these observations not within the planetary science group but in an international project whose participants had not worked closely together before. This, along with other remarks that she made, suggests that the planetary science group has successfully gone through a phase of interdisciplinary familiarizing. All group members have developed a common “general understanding" of planetary surfaces and this understanding must have been established, Laura tells me, before she joined the group more than four years ago. Yet, when I ask her whether the group shares not only a common understanding but also a joint vision, it is one of the few moments where she hesitates and then answers that “[...] there is definitely a shared vision of wanting to understand [planets]," an “overall sense of direction," but that she cannot specify this sense any further:

[...] every person in the [planets] group probably has their own, will have their own interest in [planets] in some respect—ahm, whether you can say that there is a more narrow perspective for the [.] group combined, I don’t, off the top of my head, I don’t really know.

To explain her experience of group collaboration, Laura repeatedly refers to a particular term—“knowledge base"—which has its roots in information technology. There, a knowledge base designates a repository which provides a means for the accumulation of information on a particular topic such as an operating system. Typically, online knowledge bases contain frequently asked questions (FAQs) and tutorials. Users consult a knowledge base as a manual that, unlike ordinary instructions, is tailored to the problems and issues they are likely to encounter. Thus, when Laura brings up the term “knowledge base" she implies a relational understanding of knowledge possession and expertise, emphasizing that in group collaboration knowledge is called upon dialogically—those who possess knowledge provide in reaction to the questions and the knowledge needs that their collaborators express.

Interestingly, Laura refers to the term “knowledge base" both in relation to research groups and in relation to individual scientists. When she, for example, compares the planetary science group with another, larger research group in the field, she explains that “[...] the more people you have, the better opportunity you have of having a group that has a wider knowledge base." At a different point in the interview, however, she also mentions that the core employees of a group, as in fact any senior scientist, can be described as a knowledge base in themselves. As she explains to me, as a post-doctoral researcher, you are “[...] seen as a knowledge base in yourself," that is, “[y]ou have your own area, start developing the area where you become the expert." As she is becoming a post-doc herself, she sees herself confronted with the challenge of developing and consolidating the kind of expertise she has to have autonomously— in herself—in order to respond to the knowledge needs of her interdisciplinary collaborators.

To conclude this chapter, let me point out that the concerns for professional autonomy in the interviews I have led with Laura and Adam are present in the interviews with other members of the planetary science group as well. Like other group members, Laura and Adam seek to build and retain a distinct disciplinary identity alongside interdisciplinary collaboration, thereby cultivating a sense of autonomy in the midst of thoroughgoing collaborative dependence. The next chapter begins to elucidate how these concerns play out in a molecular biology laboratory, a mono-disciplinary research group.

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