Interdisciplinary Research as a Vessel for Personal Growth

Sam Faulstich
Monday, May 10, 2021

Sam Faulstich (they/them) is a master’s student in atmospheric science at University of Nevada, Reno. Their research focuses on modeling particle transport to quantify human exposure to wildfire smoke. Sam is in the process of defending their master’s thesis, titled “Evaluating Fire Emissions Inventories to Model Smoke Exposure in the Western United States”. In the fall, they will begin their PhD in chemical engineering at University of Utah. Below are their reflections on the SW CASC Natural Resources Workforce Development (NRWD) Fellowship.

Being well-rounded is something that is incredibly important to me. One of the most important parts of my approach to research is ensuring that I can communicate my results, not just to my academic peers, but to anyone who may be interested in them. It’s impossible to do that without an understanding of the world outside my little corner of expertise. This understanding is what draws me to the NWRD Fellowship and to interdisciplinary research in general. Our cohort has decided to focus on a project related to land management techniques, particularly those of indigenous communities, and wildfire outcomes. Working collaboratively with people in many different disciplines has been incredibly enriching. I am understanding the multitude of ways that different researchers with different backgrounds approach the same problem, and I am a better scientist because of this.

While I have absolutely grown as a researcher, scientist, and team player from this fellowship, I did not anticipate the ways that it would help me grow as a human. Existing as a femme in a STEM discipline can be challenging. There are some who may disagree with that statement, but I would wager they have not done the same thing they say is not difficult. I often feel societal expectations placed upon me, even in the STEM world — expectations to look a certain way, behave a certain way, exist a certain way. Be feminine, but not too feminine. Don’t look sloppy, but don’t look like you put too much effort into it. Dress professionally, but wear pants instead of a skirt so that you will be taken seriously. Be knowledgeable, but don’t flaunt it. Be confident, but not too confident. Use your pronouns, but don’t make a big deal out of it when the wrong pronouns are repeatedly used to refer to you. These are some of the unspoken societal expectations that I bump up against every day in my professional life. I truly believe that, as Captain Holt from Brooklynn 99 says, “every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place,” so I choose to exist as my truest self in academia. But what Captain Holt forgot to say is that it takes constant effort to step up and say who you are, especially when who you are is outside of traditional expectations.

You may be thinking, “so what does this have to do with the SW CASC fellowship?” Well, the thing about interdisciplinary research is that each person holds a key to success, and each key must be used together to unlock that success. Each person’s expertise is different, yet crucial to the final outcome. I can no more complete this project on my own than I could pedal one of those silly brew bikes (you know, those 15-person party bikes) on my own. Like a brew bike, interdisciplinary research only works if everyone pulls their own weight, has a clear vision of where to go, and doesn’t drink so much beer that they throw up. My point is, we all have to bring our best, know where we’re going to succeed, and avoid taking on too much in interdisciplinary research. While I may be able to shrink myself, meet the societal expectations of me, and slip by in other areas of my life or work, that is not possible in interdisciplinary research. I need to show up, as I am, with confidence and my knowledge, and commit my best and truest self. I need to trust that the team will be there to hear me if I say “hey, I don’t think we’re going the right way.” I need to trust that the team will tell me if I’m not doing what is expected, and I need to trust that if that happens, it’s because they want us all to succeed. To be able to trust my cohorts, to show up as a good teammate and research partner, I need to start by showing up as my limitless and unexpected self, even if it is scary. Just showing up has been a source of incredible personal growth for me. I have learned so much about myself. I am getting used to showing up as myself. It’s still scary, but it becomes easier each time I do it. As I practice showing up as my true self in a space with other fellows who respect me, I get better at showing up in other places, making the world a better, more interesting place.