Turning Research Objectives into Reality: Why Faculty Dedicated to Interdisciplinary Work and Diversity Matter

by Chelsea Good Abbas

In most realms of academia and even the professional world, the notion of conducting interdisciplinary work represents a much-championed ideal that is instilled upon students and practitioners early on, as a skill set necessary for success. The narrative implies, those who can branch out, break down intellectual silos, and collaborate with other experts will be best suited to make meaningful contributions and solve real-world problems, which, after all, are not defined by disciplinary boundaries.

During my graduate studies as a student of applied anthropology at Columbia University, this notion permeated all aspects of research. I recall the tough questions such as “Who is your intended audience?” or the one-two punch, “So what? How is this relevant?” These remarks aimed to strengthen my research within my discipline but they also rightfully challenged me to consider how to further disseminate findings and tie into interdisciplinary conversations. As quintessential research questions prodding at the broader application of one’s work, these critiques undoubtedly made me a better researcher.

Furthermore, it was ubiquitously implied that if you want to be attractive on the job market, make relevant contributions, get funding, or get published, you better learn how to engage with people outside your discipline. And while I don’t doubt the value of this approach, my experience as a student was that these sorts of opportunities were out of reach and that faculty members embracing and fostering this type of work were few and far between.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to Dr. Frances Negrón-Muntaner and her work at the Media and Idea Lab at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race that I saw these principles in practice. For starters, although I was a qualitative anthropologist, Frances did not reject my application for a job to check the validity of a quantitative media data set. I fondly remember her saying “Why don’t you give it a shot? It should be about ten hours of work” as my eyes glazed over looking at the Excel spreadsheet on her screen.

As a researcher, Frances is driven by the big questions, and she is quick to find answers and people to fill knowledge gaps when we get stuck. As a result, our research teams over the years grew into vastly interdisciplinary groups. For example, after working on the Latino Media Gap: A Report on the State of Latinos in U.S. Media (2014), a project that traced the longitudinal representation of Latinos in television and film from the 1950s on, we knew we had to automate our data collection and analytical capacities. Frances and I sought out the diverse skill sets of programmers, data visualization specialists, and coders to assist our team since these tasks were bounds beyond our collective areas of expertise. And her teams have also comprised English majors, historians, community college students, computer science majors, professional consultants, master’s students, other faculty members, Columbia alumni, librarians, artists, and freelance graphic designers, to name a few.

In addition to creating a research environment that values interdisciplinary work, Frances purposefully crafts teams that are inclusive and diverse. During my time at the Media and Idea Lab, I’ve worked with indigenous students and members of the LGBTQ community, as well as with people representing a multitude of races, ethnicities, religions, and different gender identities. We had researchers contributing from a range of geographic locations: China, India, Latin America, the Caribbean, and all over North America. For Frances, these particularities were always a bonus, a new perspective that contributed additional richness to the work.

What is powerful about the Media and Idea Lab is not just the way it exposes students to these types of interdisciplinary, collaborative spaces in academia. Equally important is the leadership that sets the tone and directives. For Frances, her research objectives, advocacy work, and leadership principles are one solid force. In this sense, the Media and Idea Lab is a microcosm of how Frances envisions the world: equal, fair, diverse, inclusive, interesting.

Working with Frances at the Media and Idea Lab has shown me what truly interdisciplinary work looks like and how to integrate personal values into powerful academic research and advocacy. This experience also taught me how to value different perspectives, lead diverse teams, effectively communicate across fields of expertise, and, most importantly, how to collaboratively produce scholarship with real-world implications and that challenges the status quo, both societally and individually and on a personal and professional level.

It has now been six years and we are still collaborating on media and representation projects aimed at increasing diversity, calling out stereotypes and other negative trends in the broader media landscape, and with a special interest in holding media decision-makers accountable with numbers that tell a more holistic story. I’ve learned so much under her direction, such as new research and communication skills, best practices in writing, how to manage workloads, etc. However, what has stuck with me most, and what I carry with me now as an assistant professor of anthropology at Widener University working with undergraduate researchers, is how to build strong, diverse, interdisciplinary teams that are laser-focused on solving problems. 

Chelsea Good Abbas is an assistant professor of anthropology at Widener University. She received her doctorate in applied anthropology from Columbia University in 2020. Her primary research focuses on border studies, migration, and the anthropology of conflict and violence in the Latin American context. Within the United  States, her work focuses on issues central to Latino communities and advocacy, such as Latino representation in mainstream media, immigrant rights, language, and education. Currently she is carrying out an ethnographic project on return migration in Guatemala as a researcher in the core US Fulbright Scholar Program.