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Mandy Slate, shown here with some of the moss she studies, led the launch of the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Network for UM graduate students.Graduate student group works to promote interdisciplinary research

Interactions interest Mandy Slate. As a UM graduate student in plant ecology, she studies how mosses and other flora interact with one another and the microbial community. She also works to increase interactions among her fellow grad students through an innovative new program funded by the Montana Institute on Ecosystems.

A self-described people person, Slate hit the ground running when she arrived on campus a year and a half ago, attracted to UM by an IoE fellowship and outstanding faculty. She immediately sought out graduate students from all disciplines to gauge interest in starting an informal monthly meeting where they could discuss research ideas.

“As far as funding agencies go, ‘transformative’ and ‘interdisciplinary’ are popular buzzwords, so the need to include this mentality into our research is something we are all aware of,” she says. “Already this group has helped us get to know people outside of our departments, which can sometimes be challenging. Our goal is to get people talking and exchanging ideas, and hopefully this will lead to collaborative research.”

Slate and the other grad students applied for and received a small grant from the IoE to rent spaces and pay for meeting supplies. The students also held a retreat last summer at Glacier National Park. The group became more formalized as it grew, taking the name Interdisciplinary Collaborative Network.

Today, the ICN has spread to Montana Tech in Butte and Montana State University in Bozeman. The goal is to get graduate students of different disciplines working together and exchanging ideas between universities. “We would love to have summer retreats where ICN members from the different Montana universities get together. We want ideas flowing among the campuses.”

She says the ICN has grown to about 50 students at UM and it underwent a fundamental change at the beginning of this semester when they began hosting a for-credit seminar series.

“Even with monthly meetings, it was rough getting everyone together,” Slate says. “Grad students, as a subset of people, are pushed to their limit, and it’s hard to find time even if you want to, so this new structure has been amazing.”

The goal of the new seminar series is to get students to thoroughly understand interdisciplinary research. Professors from different disciplines are invited to present lectures together to both demonstrate and discuss collaboration. The series also involves workshops to help students develop and implement professional skills.

Slate says the ICN gives students the opportunity to “bounce ideas off people from totally different disciplines and practice talking about their oftentimes narrow subset of knowledge with someone who is not a part of that field. During a recent meeting, we each had five minutes to present our research to people from fields as disparate as molecular biology, ecology, forestry and geography, and we had to make sure they all understood. It was an incredible experience.”

Slate says that besides instilling in its student membership the importance of interdisciplinary research, the ICN also promotes mentorship, networking and educational opportunities for grad students.

“People are really stepping up to the plate, coming to the seminars and pushing themselves outside of their boxes,” she says. “And it’s totally going to pay dividends on an individual and universitywide basis.”

“We always wanted to do more to reach grad students with the IoE and the ideas around interdisciplinary research,” IoE Director Ric Hauer said. “Then Mandy arrived on campus with all her energy and just made it happen. The ICN has really taken off. Connecting peer researchers among the graduate students has made the ICN a winning idea, but Mandy has been the catalyst. It’s amazing what one person with vision can accomplish on the UM college campus.”

To learn more visit http://www.interdisciplinarycollaborativenetwork.org.

— By Cary Shimek

Plant ecology graduate student Mandy Slate in her greenhouse laboratory

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