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Interdisciplinary Conversations with Dr. Andre Phillips

Dr Andre Phillips is a Teaching Fellow in Reproductive Biology at the University of Edinburgh, but has a background in biology and freshwater ecology from St. Andrews University. In this conversation, Andre reflects on some of the challenges of teaching in a different discipline, and how it has affected his research and career. He also discusses some of the benefits and opportunities of interdisciplinary working and teaching, and the new insights it can bring for his research.

Teaching in a different discipline – actively uncomfortable

When asked about his background and how he came to teach in a different discipline, Andre says that he initially applied to the teaching fellow position to become a better teacher and lecturer. He didn’t consider the shift from biology to biomedical as having a huge impact, as he knew he would be able to catch up on information if needed. He also mentioned the benefit of having the opportunity to test out a whole new University and the clinical aspect of teaching in biomedicine. He adds that he wanted to try out new things, and tried actively to be uncomfortable. I mention that being uncomfortable is often part of being interdisciplinary, and that being comfortable with what’s uncomfortable is often necessary if we are pursuing interdisciplinary teaching or research.

(2 min excerpt)

Keeping research going is a challenge

Andre now considers himself as an ecologist sitting in reproductive biology. At first he didn’t think he could do much with this, but has been able to find a niche in understanding how chemicals in the water systems and climate change can affect reproductive biology of wild animals. In terms of his research, however, he still struggles to find any time for research, as his contract is 100% teaching.  He also struggles to find his ‘academic home’ as his research interests don’t align with the people around him. This makes it very difficult for him to do any research on the side, as the resources are not in place (such as fish tanks), and doing small bits of research to keep research ticking over is challenging. Not being able to keep research going has implications for ongoing careers aspirations, as often teaching roles will ask for applicants to be excellent teachers but also be ground breaking researchers.  These criteria are quite tough to meet as a teaching fellow, he says. He adds that he is trying to focus on being a very good lecturer and teacher at the moment, but that it takes more time and effort to teach in a different discipline as he spends more time preparing and checking students work.

(3 min excerpt)

New environments provide new insights

Andre also talks about how attending talks and lab meetings in areas of research that are entirely different to his own has allowed him to start thinking about really interesting questions that have rarely been asked before. Very few people have a foot in two disciplines, such as behavioural ecology and biomedicine, he says. This has also been apparent in some of his students work looking at interactions between endocrine disruptors in water and the reproductive abilities of fish, where they were only able to find a handful of papers on this topic. Finding new insights in research is potentially one of the biggest advantages of teaching in an unfamiliar discipline and being in new research environments. However, Andre also talks about the difficulties of finding time to do research in his current contract, and though he tries to keep papers ticking over from his previous research he can’t really start on any new research. Therefore, these new ideas for his research are not possible to pursue at the moment due to lack of resources and time.

(4 min excerpt)

Merits of interdisciplinary teaching

When asked if he can apply his interdisciplinary knowledge and skills in his teaching, Andre says it’s mixed. Sometimes he feels a bit out of his depth and has to come back to students with questions he can’t answer immediately. However, he has also had great success in including evolution in his lectures, providing students with a more complete understanding of what they are learning and the evolution of reproduction. In terms of wider university teaching, Andre thinks interdisciplinary learning is valuable, as students understand that there are more than one way to think about things. Bringing people together with different knowledge basis to teach on something they are passionate about is also very engaging for students, he says. He adds that most students will not necessarily go on to work in areas directly related to their undergraduate degrees, and providing this broader education and knowledge base for them is therefore important.

(5 min excerpt)

What is the future for your teaching and research?

When asked whether he would like to continue in this new field, or return to what he used to do before, Andre says he would love to go back to biology and teach again, but he would be more interdisciplinary about it. He would continue to invite people from outside his discipline to give lectures, and he would like to keep his connections with people he’s met at Edinburgh to facilitate guest lecturing across institutions. Moving back to biology would also make it easier for him to do research, even if he is still on a 100% teaching contract. It would reduce the effort and time it takes to keep his toe in research, which is vital for his future career prospects, he says. Andre would like to pursue some of his new research ideas, and would encourage others to go to random lectures or events to get the brain whirring about the many possibilities, and to make those important connections. This can really reinvigorate research, he adds.

(3 min excerpt)

Further resources

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