International Relations Office

Updates on the University's global engagement activities

Posts By: Muzzamil Shakil

The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in scientific research

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📥  Funding/Scholarship, Mobility, Partnership, Research, Visit

This communication attempts to share my experience as a visiting PhD researcher at the Department of Wood and Forestry Sciences, University Laval, Canada. Explicitly, I was part of the Industrial Research Chair in Eco-Responsible Wood Construction (CIRCERB). While the significance of the title may be better realised by those more experienced and engaged with research, it might not be so apparent to others. It is my hope to encourage others, especially those newly embarked on a similar path, academic or otherwise, to consider looking outside of their immediate field or discipline when fostering partnerships and searching for opportunities.

The background to my PhD

As a civil engineer pursuing a doctorate on the use of sol-gel nanotechnology to develop low-carbon, multifunctional and ultra-resilient concrete, it would seem odd to most as to why I spent six months based at a wood science department. Moving labs, let alone countries, in the middle of an experimentally demanding PhD is a daunting task. In Bath, I was settled, and our laboratories were more than equipped and tailored to my research needs. My familiarity with various academics and technical staff across the different faculties had become a refuge that allowed me to carry out effective research. So why did I break out of this comfort zone?

The complex chemistry of hydrated cement and its intermingled micro and nanostructures make it an incredibly challenging and an equally exciting material to study. Adding sol-gel nanomaterial to the cement mix further complicates matters, essentially creating a hybrid sol-gel-cement system. The endeavour to understand this novel hybrid system has involved dealing with a series of multifaceted and multidisciplinary problems, requiring me to look beyond the fluency of my own PhD. While I continued to explore new experimental techniques independently, I actively sought collaboration due to the interdependence of the different skill sets necessary to overcome some of the obstacles. Albeit unconventional, CIRCERB offered a platform to do both simultaneously. In hindsight, more so than I anticipated.

University Laval Campus

Work and collaboration at CIRCERB

Indeed, among several other streams, CIRCERB is deeply involved with the research of sol-gel nanomaterials to provide ‘greener’ solutions for the construction industry. I could use many of their in-house analytical tools to study the micro and nanostructure of hydrated cement specimens. CIRCERB also served as a bridge that gave me access to so much more, including numerous other academics, shared equipment and interdepartmental facilities throughout the campus, and off-site commercial research centres. Admittedly, there were many challenges and some initial downtime while I could ‘set up’ and get acquainted with the different labs and staff. Afterwards, I often found myself running two or three simultaneous experiments, at times in two different departments, due to easier and unrestricted access. Being able to multi-task in this way was a blessing.

Chemical and materials characterization lab, CIRCERB

 

X-ray diffractometer in transmission geometry, Department of Chemistry

Being surrounded by the rich diversity of scientists covering extensive fields of study was refreshing and intellectually stimulating. The degree of interaction and involvement encouraged within this group was second to none. It was a bit unusual, yet pleasant, to see the professors eating their daily lunch with the entire team, both staff and students. I soon realised that this unique combination of friendship and mentoring was the norm here, which extended to life outside of the office and labs. This ethos of the group promoted by its leaders is what makes CIRCERB so special and well-integrated both internally and with various other researchers and industrial partners. It was through CIRCERB’s network that I discovered Prof Luca Sorelli and his team from the Department of Civil Engineering, who specialise in the micro-nano chemo-mechanical characterisation of cement hydrates. I consider myself fortunate enough to have met him, worked with him and to have learned from him.

Confocal micro-raman spectrometer, CIRCERB

 

Microstructural chemo-mechanical characterization of materials lab, COPL

 

Microstructural chemo-mechanical characterization of materials lab, COPL

Thanks to colleagues and mentors

In fact, there are many who played an instrumental role towards my overall learning and experience. While it is impossible to name everyone, a few deserve particular mention. I am grateful to Dr Diane Schorr as, without her, it would have been impossible to realise the research potential from all the way in the UK. I must recognise the time, effort and assistance from Dr Torsten Lira, Pierre Gagne, Guylaine Belanger and Joanie Rheaume for helping me settle and for ensuring the steady operation of various routine undertakings. I hold three senior lab technicians very dear to me; Yves Bedard, without whom I would have been totally lost on so many fronts; Rodica Plesu, for introducing me to the world of crystallography and training me on the x-ray diffractometer; and Richard Javier, for his assistance with transmission and scanning electron microscopy. Jessy Frech-Baronet is a colleague and a friend, who I must thank for showing me how to execute the numerous protocols of sample preparation techniques and fruitful thoughts on micro-nanoindentation. Similarly, thanks must be extended to Antoine Cogulet, for getting me up to speed with confocal micro Raman spectroscopy, and Kevin Arnaud, for the countless discussions on various aspects of chemistry and crystallography.

I would like to thank my supervisors here in the UK, Dr Juliana Holley, Dr Kevin Paine and Dr Martin Ansell, for always instilling the value of interdisciplinary science and for encouraging me to apply for this fellowship. Finally, I am forever grateful towards my Canadian supervisors, Prof Pierre Blanchet and Dr Veronic Landry for hosting me, for granting me the complete autonomy and freedom in my research, and for the technical and emotional support during every step on the way of what truly has been a unique adventure. Their ‘open door’ policy meant I could always approach them as and when needed. Being made to feel at home in so many other ways enabled me to really focus on the science and push my own boundaries. Through their mentorship, I have been able to grow a lot as a researcher and hopefully this will reflect in the years to come. Given Pierre’s additional backing and our aligned interests, we have established three distinct collaborations, one which includes Prof Luca Sorelli and his partners at University of Sherbrooke. Collectively, this brings together academics from four different research groups, three institutions and two continents. I hope we continue to work on other joint-projects in the future but, more importantly, I hope that these friendships are long-lasting. The fellowship, which was funded through the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholars grant, and my PhD, which is funded through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council UK, are acknowledged and greatly appreciated.

Some members of the CIRCERB research team