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How to build interdisciplinary understanding among researchers of aging? Lessons from the recent Center for Healthy Aging retrea

Posted May 20 2011 8:00am

On Friday 13th May, Adrian Bertoli, Morten Hillgaard Bülow and I attended the University of Copenhagen  Center for Healthy Aging (CEHA) retreat day at the  DGI Congress Center here in Copenhagen and we have decided to bring our experiences of the day together in one blog post.

Lucy says Everyone involved in each of CEHA’s five programmes was required to participate and it was definitely a day of two halves. CEHA Managing Director  Lene Juel Rasmussen introduced the proceedings and her talk was followed by short overviews given by each of the programme leaders. The morning was dominated by traditional PowerPoint based presentations used to display schematics, charts, diagrams and arrows that sometimes became overcomplicated and confusing. Then PhDs and postdoctoral researchers presented research highlights from each programme. One very interesting presentation was by PhD student Aske Juul Lassen on Programme 5 who described his field studies and collaboration with No Age innovative solutions for elderly people in his research into technologies and communities for the active elderly

After lunch we were split into groups and invited to join in ‘The Hunt for the Elixir of Life’ – a cross-disciplinary dialogue. This was organized by the young researchers and involved the groups going into a series of rooms where different scenarios were enacted. In the ‘TV/Fitness’ room an elderly man watching TV phoned his busy daughter while she was working out at the gym. In the ‘Nursing Home’ room an elderly diabetic resident was shown being left to eat her lunch alone. In ‘General Practice’ room the scenario played was of a stressed, pregnant woman and a clock watching GP. In the ‘Chess Club’ room an elderly man playing chess with his regular partner became frustrated about starting to lose games and in the ‘Work Place’ room cigarette-smoking workmen with backaches had a health assessment.

Each different scenario played out gave rise to discussion on different aspects of ageing research. The overall question was how we might go about asking questions or researching topics raised in the scenarios from across all our disciplines. This part of the day was a great success and in my opinion the ‘Chess Club’ room worked best. Here, not only was a scenario enacted but we were asked to engage in an activity. We were given five cards with pictures on. We had to choose the top two cards we felt represented things to help with the problem shown in the performance and explain our reasons for choosing them. This participatory activity led to good discussion and the chance for all to voice opinions not just a few who had previously dominated conversations.

At times the differences between wet and dry sciences were seen as a hindrance and there were still signs of hierarchy between disciplines. Though it is hard to tell whether the aim of interdisciplinarity across the programmes will be achieved, it was valuable to bring all members of CEHA together in one space.

Adrian says A day of two halves is a very apt summary of the Center for Healthy Aging’s retreat. I can appreciate the need to have an overview of the five programmes, and the importance of allowing young researchers to present research highlights. It was nice to hear what goes on within the Center, I personally knew little about the other programmes, but the presentation format means that for the most part the researchers remained faceless names on the screen. The afternoon was a great success, the creativity and ‘unorthodox’ method of engaging researchers has set the bar high for future CEHA events.

What was missing for me was a chance to do more informal networking and socializing, especially among PhD students and Postdoctoral researchers. It is one thing to know the general research interests of the programmes, but another to know more about the people behind these. If we are to bridge the differences between the wet and dry sciences and create a common language, perhaps more informal channels would be effective. It might be a cultural difference in choice of words, but when I picture a retreat, I think of various social activities and games, chances to see the lighter side of your colleagues. This happened to some extent in the afternoon sessions, but was still somewhat plagued by power dynamics between senior and junior staff. There was a social hour afterwards; perhaps people were a bit tired after a full day of activities as not many stuck around. Even fewer of us made it out afterwards where we went out for dinner and drinks.

On the whole the day was interesting and entertaining, the venue was nice and we were well catered to in terms of food and drink. I just came away at the end of the day not knowing much more about the people who are on paper my colleagues at the Center for Healthy Aging. We are physically isolated among various campuses, the challenge becomes how to make the most of the unfortunately too seldom times we are all gathered together.

Morten says As one of the organizers of the last part of the CEHA Retreat, I was very curious about how it would turn out. From the start when we were asked to organize the afternoon, our small group of PhDs and postdocs all agreed that we wanted to do something different than another line of talks or poster-sessions. I think it was Bjarke Oxlund who first came up with (and was given responsibility for) the idea of a ‘treasure-hunt’  – which was not actually a hunt for the elixir of life, but rather a hunt for interdisciplinarity, which we had been told was to be the theme of the day.

In this hunt we wanted to avoid thinking in research programmes and instead think of themes or situations that could be viewed from different disciplinary perspectives. And we wanted to facilitate discussions that would illuminate differences and similarities between disciplines – and preferably, in the process, show the value of each research perspective and how they might fertilise each other.

I don’t know if we succeeded, but the process of coming up with these themes and situations in itself was a challenge and a learning experience. Setting it up to involve participants demanded serious considerations – our main worry was that nobody would want to discuss these issues or that they would think the whole set up too light hearted and oppose it. After all, we wanted this event to bring participants ‘outside’ the boundaries of the traditional disciplines; outside their scientific comfort zone, so to speak. For some participants this did indeed seem to imply that what we did was also un-scientific (in the broad sense of the word). It was sometimes difficult to keep the discussions going or to go up against a certain understanding of what can or what cannot count as relevant (research) questions.

But there were also mostly great discussions and interesting topics coming up so that the allotted 20 minutes per group often felt too short a time. People were just warming up to the subject of the workshop when you had to rush them out the door to receive the next group. The groups were very different – group dynamics were central to how the discussions went, and actually seemed much more important than what disciplines were represented.

This for me stressed the importance of having an open attitude towards other people and disciplines and of having enough time to develop this openness in a suitable context. For interdisciplinary discussions to work, this seemed an important take-home message.

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