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‘The more interdisciplinary the team, the harder the work,’ Margaret Cowell avows at Outstanding Junior Faculty Lecture

Margaret Cowell Margaret Cowell

Today, academics across a range of disciplines are teaming up to consider what it means to be resilient across a variety of scales, timeframes, and challenges. Margaret Cowell, assistant professor in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning in Alexandria, is one of them.

During her Outstanding Junior Faculty Lecture last week, co-sponsored by the National Capital Region Faculty Association and the Office of the Vice President for the National Capital Region, Cowell reflected on a decade of interdisciplinary resilience thinking.

Between 2004 and 2014, Cowell was a member of the Building Resilient Regions research network, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. She has continued research on regional resilience with support from the Institute of Society, Culture and Environment at Virginia Tech.

Over the past two years Cowell has co-taught Interdisciplinary Study: Principles of Disaster Risk Management, a graduate course she had a hand in developing. It utilizes a scenario- and case-history-based learning approach and features a capstone team project to mimic the way interdisciplinary teams have to collaborate in the real world. The course is part of Virginia Tech’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program.

“Problem-focused around central issues, rather than discipline-focused, we designed this course to broaden the specialized training that students receive from their traditional disciplines,” she said.

Cowell said she has found that “the more interdisciplinary the team, the harder the work. Working with social scientists in Building Resilient Regions for ten years was difficult, but meshing social sciences with STEM fields is even more difficult,” she said.

“In part this is due to the many misunderstandings we face, particularly in regards to methodological differences and the perceived differences in value of those different methods,” Cowell continued. “I wouldn’t want to speak for my colleagues, but I’d say we’ve found that the developing and offering this course has helped to galvanize our efforts and reinforce the importance of inter- or transdisciplinary scholarship.”

Cowell noted that the work being done by Virginia Tech’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program and the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience are only a small part of the larger resilience-based scholarship at the university.

“The university is committed to scholarship that focuses on resilience and global change, in addition to other topics. The focus on resilience is evolving in real time, but I think the interdisciplinary foundation of this approach speaks volumes about the need to bring a myriad of university expertise and resources to bear on the question of resilience,” said Cowell.

Why is resilience, which can seem fuzzy at times, so popular now?

“We frequently see the intersection of environmental, humanitarian, and economic crises, often in the same place, like Syria or Flint for example,” said Cowell. “We have a generalized sense of uncertainty and want to search for formulas for adaptation and survival. The idea of resilience is a way for us to grapple with these challenges.”

Cowell concluded her lecture by paraphrasing a quote from her mentor Susan Christopherson, a professor at Cornell University where Cowell earned her Ph.D. “If I’ve done nothing else, I hope that I’ve helped to illuminate the diversity of our understanding of resilience and denied us all the convenient notion that any of us are actually talking about the same thing.”

Posted March 09, 2016