Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Tech

Natalie Panek, robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions, shares with The NextWomen the importance of furthering cross-disciplinary collaborations in technology industries, underscoring the role of collaboration as a catalyst for innovation in tech.

Innovation inherently requires collaboration; whether through personal relationships, collaborating with a team to solve a problem, or learning from others in order to create change. Collaboration is often most effective with an appreciation for interdisciplinary work environments.

Interdisciplinary platforms are a key to innovation, and innovation is how we will change the world.

Embracing what can be learned across several fields provides opportunities to thrive in unfamiliar situations and process new information, galvanizing the resources needed to develop novel solutions to difficult problems. And because of the immense advancements with technology and communication, it is so much easier to learn and expand our foundations in multiple topics and work alongside experts in a variety of disciplines; whether this is coding, electronics, the arts or even entrepreneurship.

Partnerships in interdisciplinary environments are fundamental for both learning and developing new skills.

Developing skills, talents, and competence is a lifelong process. We should constantly look for opportunities to learn something new and push our limits, whether personally or professionally. The on-going pursuit of knowledge should take place throughout life and across an array of experiences.  I have always been someone who likes to get involved in details, get my hands dirty, and play with technology.

Degrees in both mechanical and aerospace engineering seemed like a natural fit for me; working through the entire life-cycle of a project, from concept development through to integration and testing. But I also benefited by learning from others working outside my direct interests. There is value in developing and implementing a communication and networking strategy to maximize interaction with multidisciplinary teams. There absolutely must be a merging of cross-disciplinary outlets for innovation. And this is evident via so many female success stories in the tech industry.

Pearl Chen is a great example of successfully merging work across disciplines as a technologist, educator, and speaker – running workshops through her studio Karma Laboratory (founded in 2002), organizing code jams, teaching web programming (HTML, CSS, JavaScript), and contributing to open source curriculum building.

Her education led her first into marketing, switching to computer science, and then applying to a Fine Arts Program at Ryerson University in Toronto called ‘New Media’, with a focus on interactive art installations. This was an opportunity to pursue something new and merge art with electronics. These experiences were a foundation for Pearl’s many years of experience in web technologies and creative hardware projects; really becoming a Jill-of-all-trades in multiple disciplines. She also works independently as a web, Android, and electronics educator.

Ariel Garten, CEO and co-founder of InteraXon also harnessed the positive interactions between multiple streams. InteraXon is known for ‘thought controlled computing products, applications, and experiences’. In other words, it is the interaction between people and content. Ariel’s background encompasses the arts, science, and business – first conducting research in a lab in University while also running a clothing line. She tapped into multidisciplinary fields at a young age, which ultimately helped her in the commercialization of a product working with brainwaves.

While these are only two examples, the range of women working in cross-disciplinary environments is evident everywhere.

These women are proof of the power of collaborative platforms and creatively breaking down the borders between disciplines. Collaboration is a necessity to innovation and a fundamental element for developing transformative technology.

On a personal level, I helped build and drove a solar powered car across North America, working with the engineering, science, arts, and business faculties at my University. I have worked on a Mission to Mars, studying the impact living underground on a different planet would have on humans. And this fundamentally required a technical, political, and sociological understanding of the effects of exploration.

And now I work on the next generation of space robotics, which would not be possible without the contributions from an interdisciplinary team. Working with a range of disciplines in each of these contexts allowed the development of an innovative solution by thinking creatively across boundaries. In each of these projects, I was able to perform at my peak because of team context – taking advantage of learning opportunities from a diverse team in order to push beyond conceived limitations.

Success in each of these endeavors relied on collaboration with several schools of thought in the pursuit of a common goal: innovation.

Collaboration is about valuing perspectives that enable outside-of-the-box thinking and drawing on the knowledge from multiple disciplines to find state-of-the-art solutions for complex and world-changing problems.

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Natalie Panek (@nmpanek) is a robotic operator and aerospace engineer at MDA Space Missions, previously interning at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center and NASA Ames Research Center. She’s driven a solar-powered car across North America, has a pilot’s license, and skydived with Korea’s first Astronaut. With degrees in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Natalie has co-authored papers on Microgravity Combustion and On-orbit Satellite Servicing. She is an advocate for women in STEM, encouraging women to dive head-on into challenging careers. She has spoken at TEDx and on multiple panels for women in tech on the topics of advancement, leadership, and space exploration.

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