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Working in an interdisciplinary field is my vocation. I am a Bioinformatician – my whole education was shaped by an interdisciplinary nature. I get paid by the University of Rostock, which is also everything but straight forward: Part-time I am working as a systems engineer for the institute of computer science, the other time I’m working at the department of systems biology and bioinformatics (SBI). Thus, I have two desks at the university, which are approximately 2km away from each other. At these desks I am doing hardcore IT stuff and/or/xor applied computer science in various projects and roles. My colleagues are again purely non-pure: There are computer scientists from Italy, mathematicians from India, medical biotechnologists from Canada, neurobiologists from Germany, computational engineers from Pakistan, and so on.. At one desk I am talking in English, at the other everyone’s expecting German (including complaints about anglicisms)..

Here I’m just jotting down some experiences from the recent past to increase the awareness of the complexity on the meta-level of interdisciplinary and intercultural collaborations.

Different Cultures…

Pretty early I learned about the issues when working across different domains, languages, and cultures. For example, a yes from a German to Do you understand what I just explained? typically means (s)he understood what I just explained. However, some cultures would not publicly admit a lack of understanding. Thus, my colleague will say (s)he understood and then go away to actually do the opposite.

Some time ago, I offered a beer to an Asian friend. He denied and so he did not get one. Months later he confessed that he has been suffering, watching me enjoying the cold beer – as he desperately wanted a beer as well! But in his culture you wouldn’t immediately take something offered. Instead he wants to be persuaded into a beer…

Hence, a no does not necessarily mean no. And vice versa, if he offers me some tea or sweets, he would not take my no for granted, but would offer the sweets again and again ;-)

Different Languages…

Such contradictions are not necessarily a cultural issue, but it is sometimes due to the language: If our mother tongues differ we are typically falling back to English, which is then a foreign language for both dialogue partners. Consequently, everyone struggles expressing and grasping thoughts. This entails a good potential for misunderstandings. In addition, there may be a clash of domain languages – experts from different fields think in orthogonal concepts or use the same words differently.

I recently had a kitchen-conversation with a biophysicist from Iran about PCR: The polymerase chain reaction. For quite some time I thought he must be drunk, because it did absolutely make no sense what he was talking about. Until I realised, that he was actually talking about PCA: The Principal Component Analysis! Both, PCR and PCA would have made sense to chat about with him and the pronunciation of the German A (ʔaː) and the English R (ɑːr) is quite similar..

There are many similar confusions. At our department, for example, PSA is used for a public service announcement or for a prostate-specific antigen – that’s not always crystal clear. Similarly, APT is an abbreviation for apartment at one of my desks, while it may mean advanced persistent threat or that someone is talking about Debian’s package manager at the other desk.

Different Tools…

However, it is not only about languages, but also about best-practices in different domains! People from diverse disciplines learnt to use diverging tools and workflows, that sometimes seem crazy from the opposite perspective.

Not long ago, we built a website in an interdisciplinary project. The developer drafted some text for the webpage and asked the others to review the wording and correct typos – assuming to get a pull request, as the sources are shared on a common code platform. However, the response was an email with a .docx attachment: The whole text of the web page was copied to Microsoft Word and then corrected using track-changes! Which in turn caused further trouble with the developer, who’s not used to work with Microsoft’s office… ;-)

Indeed, that happens all too often!

The other day, someone sent an email

Please kindly find the attached file, the first draft of workflow.
I am looking forward to your feedback.

attached was a file Präsentation2.pptx. That, of course, made the tech-guy’s hair stand on end! Powerpoint to draw figures? A meaningless file name with German diaeresis (Umlaut)? And the 2 in the file’s name explains everything about how the documents are versioned..

And so goes the whole communication between the experts from different domains. While some always communicate through tickets on the coding platform, others will respond with attachments to emails or using some other channels (such as Twitter messages or whatever chat protocols). Consequently, you are spending a significant amount of time on searching, jigsawing, and puzzling messages.

Different Times…

The communication becomes even more difficult if the partners are located in different time zones. Obviously, there is then less overlap in working hours.

When I write an email to a collaborator in New Zealand, he will typically receive it around the middle of his night and answer in the middle of my night. For a call, we need to schedule a meeting which is out-of-office-time for both of us.

Consequently, decisions, that would have been made in a few minutes during a f2f meeting, can take several days of discussions.

Different Goverments…

Working across different time zones typically also implies working across loyalties. My collaborators may need to comply with very different laws – or they may be affected by other absurd rules!

In a recent project we decided to use one of these big American platforms to facilitate our collaboration. Suddenly, it turned out that some people in the team cannot access the platform anymore. Even though they did nothing wrong, a wigged carrot on steroids violently banned them with embargos or sanctions. Including all consequences.

Such things are simply unpredictable, but have serious impact on the collaboration.

Ergo… Stop?

With all these difficulties, should you stop interdisciplinary teamwork? Certainly not!! Instead, be aware of these challenges and budget some extra time

  • to learn how to speak to one another without confusion,
  • to acknowledge the complexity on the meta-level of interactions, and
  • for unexpected interruptions.

Despite all the difficulties, it’s great to work in diverse teams! Even though it drove me crazy multiple times, I learnt to appreciate decelerations. Different skills, contradictory perspectives, and orthogonal peculiarities entail many discussions and cost a great deal of energy, but almost always improve the quality of the product.

In addition, and maybe more importantly, working in an interdisciplinary field expands your horizon and you will learn things you cannot imagine.

A recent visitor from Hong Kong exchanged insights about the current protests in his home country. I had a conversation with two colleague from India and Pakistan about the Kashmir conflict. And I actually felt the effects of embargos - which are otherwise far away from Germans..

However, the outcome is absolutely worth the “trouble” ;-)

Martin Scharm

stuff. just for the records.

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