If You’re Not Networking, You’re Not Working

A research network is an essential component of a research project, as an established network of mentors, colleagues, advisors, and fellow researchers can be valuable in the development of a project. Finding answers to difficult questions and addressing complex social issues cannot be done by one individual alone, and instead can be achieved through collaborative efforts and significant peer review. Finding a research mentor is particularly exciting, because they often have similar interests. My personal experience with meeting my research mentor was particularly rewarding, as it allowed me to not only form a network of Pitt faculty, but also helped me find my niche at Pitt. Through this connection, I’ve embarked on a journey, exploring a topic I not only love, but also believe can have a tremendous impact. I first connected with my research mentor, Dean Audrey Murrell, on the topic of food insecurity after learning of the plans to revamp the Food Abundance Index. My experience in food provision and my interest in social impact research guided me to my first meeting with Dean Murrell, and after hearing about the Food Abundance Index, I instantly knew I wanted to be a part of the project. In addition, Dean Murrell appointed Dr. Ray Jones as my faculty advisor for this project. I had met Dr. Jones over the summer before my freshman year during a study abroad trip to Dublin, Ireland. Dr. Jones co-developed, and recently co-published, the Food Abundance Index with Dean Murrell, so he was also very knowledgeable about the topic of food insecurity. After several brainstorming sessions with both of my mentors, I was introduced to the non-profit organization I’m currently working with: Food21. Dean Murrell is very involved with Food21, and mentioned to me in our early meetings that they were interested in cooperating with us on this project. This was not only extremely valuable to the expansion of my personal network, but working with Food21 equipped me with the necessary resources to make the FAI data collection tool a reality. I partnered with Samuel Rose, Director of Operations for Food21’s Center for Data, Analytics, and Strategy to develop the application itself. I’m fully convinced that if it can be programmed, coded, or queried, Sam can do it. Throughout the course of the project, the design for the FAI has evolved, and with each new implementation, Sam never fails to devise a programming methodology to implement the design. In addition, I also had the opportunity to meet with other members of the Board of Directors at Food21, including Food21’s President, Joe Bute. Everyone I’ve met has provided valuable insight and ideas for the project, and also inspired me to pursue other avenues of engagement in relation to food systems.

The major benefit to working across disciplines is the ability to fully address different dimensions of a problem, and leverage different skill sets to develop solutions. No problem is purely one dimension, so using one discipline to address it would be ineffective. Instead it is necessary to adopt multiple lenses when addressing a problem, and determining the most effective combination of skills to solve it. For the Food Abundance Index, computer programming and data analytics is a crucial component that has ushered the index into the age of big data. Leveraging these analytics techniques to address inconsistent and inaccessible food insecurity measuring methodologies can efficiently create solutions. In addition, this tool also has the versatility to address issues across different disciplines, including policy, public health, and local economy. However, an obstacle to working across disciplines can often be a lack of holistic knowledge to cover the interdisciplinary study. This is where the importance of a large research network is exemplified, as it may be necessary to consult with experts in each discipline involved. For example, as a rising sophomore, I do not consider myself to be an expert in local government, food insecurity, data analytics, food services, and marketing. As all these disciplines were crucial to my research project, it was necessary to consult with different mentors and experts that have relevant experience and expertise in each of these disciplines. It is evident that while interdisciplinary research may be difficult due to the breadth of knowledge, an established research network can certainly remedy this issue.

As previously discussed, connections are vital to conducting thorough interdisciplinary research. Connections are also vital to professional development, especially in the industry I aspire to work in: consulting. Consulting is an interesting career with respect to disciplines, because it embodies the necessity of interdisciplinary knowledge. As problem solving is inherently multi-faceted, and thus requires a broad range of knowledge, successful consultants must also be equipped with similar knowledge. An effective substitute to the difficult task of becoming an expert in many disciplines, is to make connections with individuals in each discipline, effectively establishing a tight network with a diverse skill set. This is what I intend to achieve, as far as establishing connections, as I love learning about others’ experience in different industries. If there was one discipline specifically that I would pursue more connections in, it would be public sector consulting, particularly consulting for the government. This would give me valuable insight into a career I intend to pursue. However, it is always a pleasure meeting professionals in different industries. A common question I pose is examples of problems, and problem solving strategies they encounter and employ. No matter the industry, problems are inevitable, and these problem solving methodologies are transferable. In relation to the Food Abundance Index, it is quite possible a similar methodology can be applied to monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks and its effect on local food systems. There is lots of discussion about the inclusion of a public health dimension, as data on public health issues can be collected in a similar fashion. This method of problem-solving is one I strive to develop, where I can employ similar tactics from previous projects, classes, and other activities to address new issues across all disciplines.

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