A student experience reflection. By Isabelle Powell.
Across a two week period, myself and 18 other university students undertook an immersive SSEAC multidisciplinary field school in Singapore, sponsored by the Australian Government's New Colombo Plan. Strangers to each other, and each other’s disciplines, we were tasked with the challenge of researching the country's COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout. Spanning across geography, government and international relations, health and medical sciences, and pharmacy, we coalesced in small teams, ready to synthesise our disciplinary backgrounds.
The two weeks would offer many opportunities: to meet other students, learn from local NGOs, and interview Singaporeans across generations and cultural backgrounds. I left the field school with appreciation for the rich, collaborative, and at times complex process of working across disciplines. Moreover, ‘interdisciplinarity’ moved from a buzzword to a real experience and came with a multitude of learnings.
An Introduction to Southeast Asia
I welcomed the opportunity to expand the international relations theory I’d been studying, but was unfamiliar with research, the Southeast Asian region, and the practice of interdisciplinary work felt foreign to me. Public health and COVID vaccination did not feel in my area of immediate interest or expertise. As the week progressed, so did our understanding and knowledge of Singapore. Talks at the Australian High Commission, DUKE NUS, Ministry of Health, National Centre for Infectious Diseases, local NGOs, Singaporean students, and numerous speakers were invaluable to our education and research. From bio-surveillance of waste, migrant rights advocacy, vaccines and borders, the elderly population, and normative structures of care in Singapore, each speaker offered a unique angle, helping us to better understand Singapore and its experience during COVID-19.
Getting a feel for teamwork
Field research began in week two, feeling a bit clunky at first as if there was some disciplinary language barrier, interfering with communication flow. I abandoned International Relations jargon and leaned into a wonderfully refreshing opportunity to collaborate. Initially our lack of familiarity made it difficult to finalise a research question, but after lengthy, robust discussion, we settled on a generational comparison investigating Singaporean’s attitudes toward contact tracing systems during COVID-19.
Out in the field
We distributed surveys and interviewed Singaporean residents in the street, at local Hawker Centres and on university campuses. Hot and sweaty from a day of collecting questionnaire responses, we made our way to a public housing flat, with the thin hope to interview elderly residents. With broken Mandarin and a mix of our foreign accents, we were not confident we would even be let into the building. One of our group members was a local Singaporean university student, whose cultural context and knowledge on Singaporean etiquette would prove extremely useful. Tentatively, he approached the Aunty through the back door of the care centre as we waited outside. A few minutes later, and to our pleasant surprise, he appeared and ushered us all in.
The Aunty who ran the centre remembered him from when he had volunteered a few years ago. It was through this connection that we were given what I considered our most precious education in Singapore, and a valued research opportunity. We were met with warm hospitality, in the form of red bean buns and yakults. Sitting around small tables, all pedagogical constructs and disciplinary differences melted away, leaving just gratitude, and excitement to see how our new learnings and wisdom would manifest, in our research and beyond.
The lessons of teamwork and interdisciplinarity
What I discovered was that interdisciplinarity did not start when our research planning session began, nor finish the moment we shut our laptops and packed away our books. The real golden moments happened on the MRT, while chatting to another student, asking questions about each other’s respective disciplines. Interdisciplinarity allowed me to use my knowledge, but also deconstruct and simplify it, which in turn exposed my gaps and expanded my ability to produce authentic and meaningful work.
The experience of the field school challenged me and put into practice many things that throughout university had been living in theory: on a resume, written in my notes, words such as teamwork, openness, communication. I left with an inspiration and curiosity to explore further international global issues, and at the same time; an acute awareness of my discipline being but one lens through which to view the world.