UCL Research Domains


Together We Create - Episode 2

Building relationships for interdisciplinary and collaborative research

In this episode, we are joined by Dr Michel Wahome, who joined UCL in 2021 as a lecturer in the Department of Science & Technology Studies. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:04

Hello and welcome to Together We Create, a podcast about collaborative social research. My name is Lili Golmohammadi, I'm a collaborative researcher working across design technology and social research and a final year PhD student at UCL. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:20

In each episode, I will be talking to an early career researcher at UCL to find out more about how and why social researchers collaborate with engineers, scientists, health practitioners and designers and hearing about their research stories and top tips as we discuss the benefits and challenges of taking a multidisciplinary approach. 


Lili Golmohammadi  00:43

In this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Michel Wahome who joined UCL in 2021, as a lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. Before becoming an academic, Michel worked as an Innovation and Science Policy Adviser in a variety of Non-Governmental Organisations, including the New York Academy of Sciences. Michel holds an MSc in Science and Environmental Policy, and was awarded her PhD An Analysis of the Practices of Digital Startup Entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2020, from the University of Edinburgh, and she has held research positions at Oxford and Strathclyde universities. 


Lili Golmohammadi  01:20

Michel, that's quite a rich and very varied career journey. Can you tell us a little about the key interests and questions that have driven it?


Michel Wahome  01:28

Well, back in my idealistic youth, I was interested in, you know, environmental management and saving the world. It was the era of you know, Kyoto Protocol before that there was Rio. And so it seemed like there was an interest in resolving climate change and conserving nature and I wanted to direct my career in that direction so I initially went to undergrad to do environmental science. So a lot of lab work. And I realised, as I was doing that, that it seemed like the social realm was where the change had to occur, like nature was fine, it was us that needed to change our approach to economics, and that sort of thing so I switched into more like environmental studies, environmental policy studies, and have sort of straddled that science and social science realm since then. And that suspicion that I had, that it was the social realm that needed adjusting has just continued to grow over time. Particularly as you know, you mentioned that I worked in science and policy advisory, you know, it's very clear that how we construct our notions of progress is not conducive to the aims that we had back then in, you know, in the 90s of resolving Climate Change.


Lili Golmohammadi  02:58

You're now a lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies. And that's kind of a big part of your, your work as well, that field. So from what I understand it's an inherently interdisciplinary area, what does this cover and what are the key ideas?


Michel Wahome  03:13

Well, science and technology studies essentially is kind of a broad area of interest in how science is done, so thinking of it as a social process, as well as thinking about the impact it has on society. So I would say those are the two main buckets, it's how do people do science? And also, how does science affects society and how does society affect the production of science. And within that there's historians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, really wide cohort of people who are interested in those questions. A lot of science and technology studies thinking has been produced by scientists themselves, who are also interested in the social realm starting think about how their work impacts society. That's why it is interdisciplinary, because there are very many schools of thought and interests within STS.


Lili Golmohammadi  04:13

I just wanted to ask you a little bit more about the perspectives of your work and how you position yourself within science and technology studies. So I know that a decolonising and critical perspective is an important part of your research. What does this mean to you and how does this shape your approach to science and technology studies?


Michel Wahome  04:31

Yeah, so while I was studying for my PhD, I got the sense that STS itself needed to be a little critical of its own attitudes. So tend to which in broaden the definition of what science was, it was quite exclusive, but often felt that we were talking about the Western world, and sometimes Asia might be included. But it seemed to me that science is, aside from being a methodology, is also how people answer questions about nature and the world. And that has happened before the scientific method was ever created or developed, or a particular kind of scientific method was created and developed. So for me, decolonisation is about thinking about how other kinds of knowledge contributes to our understanding or how they could, and how this attitude we have about what science is, has a tendency to silence, those kinds of knowledge, and to create this linear idea of progress where there's like a backward place or people that have to be brought out into the light, and sort of resisting that kind of attitude is what I'm interested in. So I often, you know, when trying to describe my work, I will say, knowledge production rather than underlying the science and technology because I think I'm trying to communicate a more holistic attitude to what science can be.


Theme music  06:00


Lili Golmohammadi  06:06

Before joining UCL, you were Social Researcher collaborating with deep ocean and marine scientists, lawyers, politicians, the fishery industry and local fishing communities to search sustainable ocean development and governance. Can you tell us a little about the aim of that work and what it involved.


Michel Wahome  06:24

So the project was designed to transform ocean governance and make it responsive to the interests of communities who live at the cost to use the ocean for their livelihood, as well as for their subsistence and to contribute to a global sense of ownership of the ocean and stewardship of the ocean. And so there were about 124 researchers that were part of this network and we worked in several different countries. So the HQ was in the UK, but Ghana, South Africa, Namibia, and Fiji were the countries that were also involved, so universities in those countries. So the goal was just this broad, general vision of transforming ocean governance, specifically in those countries, but also at the global level.


Lili Golmohammadi  07:17

What were you hoping to find out and achieve through the project?


Michel Wahome  07:22

Well, the thing about the project that was really well, not necessarily groundbreaking, because interdisciplinary projects have existed before, but the scale at which it was, there was going to be a deep sea science component, or crews of people going to study the South Atlantic Ocean, which is one of the most understudied places in the world. So that was very exciting. So those are deep sea scientists, and we had social scientists who are interested in the communities and how they were going to address the vulnerabilities that are emerging around oceans. And whether we can institute marine protected areas to protect biodiversity while still allowing communities to participate in, you know, their traditional practices that they've had for quite some time. Integrating all those interests was a task but also a goal, you know, so we were hopeful that, at the very least, we would produce a model for how to do that. So we'll see that, you know, it's kind of in year three. So by year five, we should see how the impacts preceding.


Lili Golmohammadi  08:36

So the people you're working with so far apart, quite literally. So you had politicians and communities on dry land, fisher people on the sea, marine scientists and miles beneath deep ocean scientists as well. How do you use science and technology studies, ideas and methods to bring these groups together?


Michel Wahome  08:56

Right, so my positioning within the project was kind of as an evaluator of it. So to assess how we were doing in particular areas, the transdisciplinary aspects, the equitable partnerships and capacity strengthening within and without the project in order to achieve our goals. And, as I mentioned, STS generally takes a critical stance. So it's interested in power dynamics, and how they unfold and how we address them. And I was particularly interested in the, you know, decolonising, as a project, if we could, how do you do it in practice, and one of the things that I can say is that it's very interesting to be a researcher, so to be interested in research questions, and to be doing research, and then also have to implement ideas. Those are very two different things. And so I was very happy to wear my researcher hat [laughs] I'm comfortable with that. But then having to make suggestions about how we do one thing or the other, that was more of a challenge. But it's very much dependent on how open the project or people are to that if they're aware that that's how, what's going to be happening. And if they're interested in thinking through those issues with you, I think you're able to achieve a lot more than you might if they were unaware or not willing.


Lili Golmohammadi  10:30

So would you say those were the main challenges or tensions that you experienced when you were trying to work in these co-creative ways around fishing? How did you manage those?


Michel Wahome  10:40

Well, I would say that one of the main challenges was, even in the design of these projects, there was an expectation that academic researchers could do, quote, unquote, development. And, you know, that is a whole other industry professional area that people haven't necessarily trained for, aspired to, you know, so if you were interested in mollusks or sea sponges, and now you're supposed to think of your findings in terms of how they do this greater thing, maybe you are prepared for that, and maybe not, maybe you want to, but it's not necessarily something that you've ever done before. So I would say one of the issues was how are we equipped as researchers to do this. So I had an sort of an NGO background before so had worked in the space of development [laughs]. But for other people, this is not necessarily their priority, you're a professor, you're teaching, you're also doing your research. And now you have to think of it in a different way. You have to think about how to make it accessible to policymakers. And are you sharing the benefits of your research with other communities? And so I think the nobility of the plan is inherent, and we can't argue with it. But then how do you make the researchers, how do you equip them to do that as well?


Lili Golmohammadi  12:13

Was there anything that emerged, that it's been useful for equipping?


Michel Wahome  12:18

The solution is partnership, you know. So finding the right partners on the ground and elsewhere. But then that uncovers another issue. Because if you're an academic, you might not necessarily know who the right partners are. So at the end of the day, what I will say is that it boils down to relationships and building them. And if I were to make a project like this from scratch, I would create it with people who've known each other for a while. And then they can bring in new people rather than creative people who haven't known each other and are doing it for the first time. So it was very much an experiment in how to do this. And now we've learned a few things. And I'd say one of them is that like, the relationship building is a very important piece. So if you want to short cut it, then find people who already have worked together, and then introduce new variables slowly into that. Yeah.


Lili Golmohammadi  13:17

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So in terms of I suppose, reluctant partners, that you know how sort of going back to, I suppose collaboration and the difficulties of collaboration, can you give us an example of successful strategies you've used to help those reluctant partners to connect or get on board with a collaboration?


Michel Wahome  13:37

Some of it will sound somewhat cliche, but if you find a common interest or enemy or something, something to bring you together, one very interesting collaboration was in South Africa, between natural scientists and social scientists who, in the past, you know, kind of were ships in the wind, and might have found themselves on different sides of an issue. But, you know, just by getting to know one another, they realise that they have a shared interest in the conservation of the ocean. It wasn't sort of conservation versus people, which is often a divide that emerges in the environmental realm, but they shared the same interest in conservation. And in people, maybe it was just over one or the other was over emphasised in their own particular research. And they could think together about how to facilitate the inclusion of communities in decision making about how to protect the ocean, that these people actually were also interested in that as well. They don't just want to exploit it, that they have very deep emotional and spiritual connections to the ocean. And that value of the ocean is as important as you know, caring about its cleanliness or stewardship, that it's the same spectrum of ideas and feelings, and they could come together over that. And so that was a really beautiful thing to see unfold. And you know, they continue to work together. And I think if the spirit of that collaboration would infuse all of us that we all kind of want the same thing, okay, I'm sure there's some people who don't want the same thing [laughs] but that we all care about our families, our friends, keeping them safe, and to extend that sense into how we interact with nature as a thing that protects us as well, that the notion of stewardship is something that we all probably share in that way.


Theme music  15:38


Lili Golmohammadi  15:47

So, Michel, how would you describe your model of collaborative research?


Michel Wahome  15:52

Well, I always think of, even if I'm not in a formal research project, and I'm doing a study on my own, I have always tried to think of the people who are participating in the study as my collaborators. And to the extent to which I can formalise that participation. I tried to do that, in part, it's because I don't want to be extractive. And also, because I know that I am learning from them. They have an expertise, they're the experts of their life experience. So I am actually learning from them. And so I try to treat them as partners. If I can I have them review what I think happened so that they can tell me whether I'm right or wrong. I didn't really realise that it was uncommon for that to be the way that you think about it. And I guess it has potential pitfalls. You know, like there's this, there's this idea that a researcher needs to be distant from their subject, right? It's that and that generates objectivity. But for me, I was interested in sort of accuracy and validity. So that, for me was the way to get it. There was a recent case in the UK a few years ago, where a historian was called to testify in the freedom fighters in Kenya, known as the Mau Mau was suing the UK Government for mistreatment in a colonial period. And she had done interviews for her own research. And the validity of those people's testimony was in question. But somehow her position as an academic somehow lent validity to them. And I thought I found that really strange, and I think that informed my attitude towards the people that I interviewed that I don't want it, I don't want to have that kind of relationship where me interpreting their things has more validity than their own testimony about their lives. And so I think that really informed my approach to conducting research, always seeing myself as learning from others.


Lili Golmohammadi  18:15

 Yeah, that's really lovely. 


Theme music  18:16


Lili Golmohammadi  18:25

So you've already given us some advice, but I'm hoping that you can offer some further advice for other social researchers who want to do collaborative research, be it with marine or deep ocean scientists or other disciplines. So what qualities and skills have helped you to move between the different research perspectives that are essential to collaborations?


Michel Wahome  18:46

I would say, the openness, if you are interested in collaborative research, then know that it will require collaboration, that there will be some negotiation of positions. And the goal is to meet somewhere in a middle and kind of around the shared interest, right? So for instance, I'll give the example of economics, how we think of markets and economics, as a society is kind of fixed. There's debate on the margins around, you know, shall we raise taxes or no, but we've pretty much sort of agreed that how we run the economy currently is how it should run. And so infusing other ideas into that can be a little difficult with people who are pretty sure that the status quo is as it should be.


Lili Golmohammadi  19:43

Have you worked with anyone who's much more rigid in this way? And, has there been anything that's helped to move them out of that rigid position?


Michel Wahome  19:54

Well, the honest answer is that the funding landscape right now is encourages a lot of collaborative work. And so a lot of researchers are moving towards that, right. And so I would say, for a smoother landing into collaborative work, I think an awareness of the fact that not everyone will see things that we you do, and that they'll have to be, they'll be some negotiation around that is important. And that the sum of what you create together will be amazing if you allow it to be. And that conflict can be productive, it can be generative, it can also go the other way. But if you are open to having it go beyond just the friction, then it's possible for you to create something really good if you work together. It's one thing to talk about doing collaborative work. But the nature of the collaboration is what will generate good outputs.


Lili Golmohammadi  21:00

Are there any other particular researcher qualities or skills that you think are useful to foster as a collaborative social researcher?


Michel Wahome  21:09

So I guess that I'm emphasising this idea of being open to hearing other people's expertise and seeing the way that can be incorporated. But in terms of practical skills, I will say that it is time consuming, right? So there is all the positivity around it and its potential. But you're right, there are skills to be developed and learned. And it does take time to set aside the time to listen and hear and have these brainstorms and back and forth and write things together and that sort of thing. So I would say time management is always an issue if you're an academic, but to go in with that awareness that this is going to consume more of my time. And, and in order to do it, well, I'll have to dedicate time to it. I also will be put in positions where I am not... I'm not an expert necessarily. And it's okay to be uncomfortable. It's okay to to not know and to look for the person to partner with that does, I will say to that it will be important to develop relationships with other kinds of groups, whether it's industry or policymakers so that you're releasing the burden of implementation onto other people. So finding the right partners is really important, making sure that partnerships are equitable, so that you can think of it as from the perspective of inclusivity. But it's also the sharing of labor. And so not one person is overburdened either by the running of the thing, or by the doing the work, you know, the sort of the grunt work, quote unquote, of it.


Lili Golmohammadi  23:00

I think that's really interesting what you're saying that because there's a lot about managing this emerging and growing interdisciplinary space, where it's sort of managing your time, managing yourself, and recognising that although you might be pushed or carried along perhaps by a tide to move into other areas, such as implementation, but sort of managing those relationships and putting those boundaries in nicely so that it's collaborative, but also, you're not trying to spread yourself too thin. 


Michel Wahome  23:30

And I think that will be a skill set that will be really valued over time. There are some disciplines, I think, like development studies, and others where they've been doing that for a while. And to some extent, maybe they weren't seen as you know, doing scholarship with the big S. But now, that ability to be a bilateral actor who is an academic, but also does this other sort of real world work is now a sought after thing, because as I said, the funding landscape is encouraging that. And so I think there's more of a recognition that there is a skill set there that maybe doesn't have a name yet.


Lili Golmohammadi  24:16

Yeah, yeah. Oh, Michel, thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. 


Lili Golmohammadi  24:24

You've been listening to Together We Create. This episode was presented by myself Lili Golmohammadi and edited by Cerys Bradley. I was joined today by Michel Wahome. If you want to find out more about her research or the podcast series, please follow the links in the description. This podcast is brought to you by the UCL Collaborative Social Science Domain