International Relations Office

Updates on the University's global engagement activities

Tagged: partnerships

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

 

International Healthcare Workshop with Koç University, 28-30 July 2017

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📥  Conference, Research

An early-career researcher workshop on "Improving healthcare operations through modelling and simulation" brought together scholars from the UK and Turkey in Bath, 28-30 July 2017.

Invited by the School of Management, 25 early career and senior researchers from the UK and Turkey explored innovative decision-making tools to pressing challenges in healthcare planning and management, with a particular focus in applying systems modelling and computer simulation techniques to problems in health and care.

The session was organised by Professor Christos Vasilakis, Director of the Centre for Healthcare Innovation and Improvement (CHI2) at the University of Bath, and his colleagues Profs. Evrim Didem Günes and Lerzan Örmeci at Koç University in Istanbul.

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With support from a British Council/Newton Fund Researcher Links grant, the workshop provided a unique opportunity for early career scholars to engage with senior researchers and healthcare practitioners, and to work together on a number of challenges in areas of care such as stroke prevention, outpatient care for chronic illness and hospital appointment scheduling.

Implementing a collaborative approach

Collaborative research with practitioners is of significant value, as operational researchers rely on rich data and realistic scenarios to design mathematical models and computer simulations that can have meaningful impact in the way healthcare is provided. This also means that researchers need to acquire the skills to communicate with diverse stakeholders such as policy-makers, health planners or clinicians in designing research questions, sharing data and creating practical, easy-to-use toolkits for decision-making.

This was an excellent workshop! The research challenges provided lots of new information and perspectives. I appreciated the friendly environment and effective communication between researchers from UK and Turkey, which I believe will lead to many fruitful collaborations.

Dr Erhun Kundakcioglu, Ozyegin University

To facilitate a similarly collaborative approach, the workshop organisers encouraged participants to form smaller problem-solving teams and work together to design initial modelling solutions. Each team then had the opportunity to present their outcomes in a plenary setting and receive feedback from senior mentors and practitioners, including Dr Monica Baird, Deputy Medical Director at the North Bristol NHS Trust.

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Building networks to improve data collection

The workshop’s collaborative design also benefited from the international exchange of scholars based at institutions in the UK and Turkey.

Turkey’s fragmented healthcare system makes data collection in the country very difficult. Scholars therefore stand to gain from networks with UK partners to complement expertise in theoretical mathematics with building capacities in applied healthcare research.

As research skills training, this working-group format has lots of potential to be developed further to ensure researchers are connected to actual problems in the health and care sector. It is also a model that can be applied to other areas of operational research such as transport or logistics.

Dr Paul Forte, the workshop’s facilitator and an independent health care consultant at the Balance of Care Group

For the past five years, my research focus has been operating room scheduling: how to best allocate expensive operating room resources to benefit the patients, surgical team and the hospitals. This workshop gave me the perfect opportunity to meet with fellow colleagues with similar research interests and to establish potential collaborations in a warm and welcoming setting. I absolutely loved the workshop’s design around small and focused working groups around exciting and challenging problems. I look forward to reuse this workshop’s collaboration style to design similar study groups in the future.

Dr Enis Kayış, assistant professor at Ozyegin University’s Department of Industrial Engineering

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Taking partnerships forward

Researcher Links grants like the one Professor Vasilakis received are designed to support international networking activities for early-career researchers between the UK and select partner countries. Most of this workshop’s participants had been trained at institutions around the world, and were already familiar with working across diverse research cultures. Sustaining such links and transforming them into long-term projects can be more of a challenge.

Professor Vasilakis’ links with his Turkish colleagues grew out of opportunity and personal contacts, as is often the case in academia. A University of Bath “International Research Initiator” grant in 2016 was instrumental in building on these initial contacts and paved the way for visits and joint funding bids. It is important for him to take the partnership forward:

We had great fun organising and running this interactive research workshop with our collaborators from Koç University. We took full advantage of the School of Management Executive Education suite at The Edge to have teams working together over two and a half days on one of a number of research challenges drawn from real life problems in health and care. The close links between CHI2 and the local health economy made this possible. I think we managed to give early career scholars new ideas for research projects, and also create friendships and networks that can take some of the research ideas forward. All this was made possible with the generous support from the International Relations Office of the University of Bath.

Professor Christos Vasilakis

Contact for enquiries: Professor Christos Vasilakis


Further international funding opportunities

The International Relations Office at the University of Bath runs an internal funding scheme to support researchers at the university. Applications are made for seed funding to initiate new international networks, or to transform existing contacts into larger joint research projects and activities.

The next call for funding will open in October 2017.

For more information, contact: Dr. Tina Schilbach, International Partnerships Manager