When I first learned about the idea of community research, my initial understanding was that a summer fellowship in this field meant undergoing an intensive study of Pittsburgh history. While a project like this would no doubt be the recipe for a summer well spent, under the guidance of the amazing faculty at the Pitt Honors College, I came to the realization that community research was a fluid and flexible field, where all disciplines were welcome and the only limitations were your imagination. Rather than cataloguing the past, this summer I learned that community research is about building towards the future, bridging the distance between a University and its surrounding communities to make the world a better place. By leveraging the resources of a tier one research institution and combining these strengths with the strengths of local organizations, the paradigms of research are changed, and its public understanding is turned from abstraction to action.
The interdisciplinary, diverse, and dynamic nature of community research is on full display within my team this summer at Pittsburgh DataWorks. Consisting of a professional data scientist, a University of Pittsburgh professor of neuroscience, and three undergraduate Pitt students representing three different schools (Arts and Sciences, Computing and Information, and Engineering), every team member brings their own unique background and skill set. While it may seem like these differences would make it harder for a team to communicate and get on the same page, this summer I have found the differences of our team to be one of our greatest strengths. The first reason for this is that by having such a wide base of knowledge, we are all able to cover more ground and get more work done. Whether it is Lucas Troy’s coding skills being used to redesign the Pittsburgh DataWorks website, Dr. Cameron’s mastery of effective communication that she uses to provide feedback on our presentations, or Brian Macdonald’s incredible knowledge of data analysis techniques that lets him guide myself and Tony in our projects, we are able to play to each other’s strengths and pursue projects where everyone can excel. This is also displayed in the deliverables that are being made for Pittsburgh DataWorks, a video series, data manual, and redesigned website. Just as the people making them have different strengths and preferences for communication, the people ultimately using them will be a diverse group of high school students who learn and interpret information in different ways. By providing as many options as possible, we hope to give all a chance to learn and excel.
In addition to being logistically advantageous, working across disciplines provides more abstract benefits in the exchange of ideas and feedback. I first came to this realization when I received my first round of feedback on my pilot episode of the Data Diaries, and while reading the comments from Pitt students and proven professionals inside and outside of academia, I thought that I could not have handpicked a better focus group to test out my videos. In addition to ensuring representative feedback, in our weekly meetings, our various backgrounds led to an influx of input from a variety of perspectives. With our target audience being high school students for every Data Jam resource, our community partners frequently asked for the input of Tony, Lucas, and I, as we were closer in age to this demographic. When we presented our ideas, the experience of our mentors came in very handy as they could connect us with the right resources and help us redefine the scope of our projects to be realistically completed within the summer.
The research cohort within the Honors College is also a testament to the benefits of interdisciplinary research. While hearing about the work of my peers in our weekly meetings, I am continually awestruck and inspired by the incredible work being done to tackle issues like food insecurity, water pollution, media representation, and so much more. Moving forward, I hope to continue crossing fields to cover new ground in future research projects, and crossing boundaries with the amazing insight that this can provide. As we come down the home stretch of the summer, I just wanted to say thanks again to all who are supporting and following along with this project. Be sure to stay tuned for more information about the final deliverables (such as where to watch my completed videos)! As always, don’t hesitate to leave any questions or comments down below.