Researchers at Tufts' Feinstein International Center take a creative and interdisciplinary approach to their work in the humanitarian field.
As it celebrates its tenth anniversary, Tufts' Feinstein International Center is "maturing," says its director, Peter Walker. With fresh office space in Medford, located just a few blocks from the Tufts campus, and a new, formal office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it's the first time in the Center's decade-long history that its staff in each location has had an opportunity to work together under the same roof—a small, but significant detail, considering the Center's growing emphasis on interdisciplinary research.
"It's a synergy thing," Walker says about the Center's staff—a blend of academics and practitioners from different disciplines—who often team up on projects. "The trick, I think, is you can't force this. It's organic. You've got to create an environment that encourages people to say, 'Hey, we can do this together.' Then you've got to foster it."
The opportunity for that type of collaboration is what attracted Dan Maxwell—a leading thinker on food security and emergency interventions in Africa—to Tufts, where there is strong support for interdisciplinary research.
"You can't separate out the need for food from the need for a lot of other things," says the former regional representative for CARE International, who joined the center in July. "None of these problems in the real world is in its own separate silo. It's all intermixed with other things."
Maxwell sees a natural, yet subtle, tie between his work and the research of his colleague, Karen Jacobsen, director of the Refugee and Forced Migration Program at the Center. After running a mobile food operation in Darfur during his time at CARE, Maxwell learned that crime decreased when teams delivered food to certain areas. "The teams' very presence there was a disincentive to the criminal activity that would happen there when nobody was watching," he says.
Maxwell began to wonder about the link between food security programming and human protection—an area of interest to Jacobsen—in the region. "That is the kind of question that you can look at here because there are both people with those interests and the sort of general team commitment to work together on things that at first glance may not appear to have a whole lot in common," says Maxwell.
Jacobsen agrees that interdisciplinary research is a key part of her work at the center. She often partners with Helen Young, who leads the Public Nutrition Program.
"We combine methodologies and we combine the kinds of research questions we are interested in," says Jacobsen. "Also, because a lot of work is field-based, where we have to go into quite difficult situations, we try to go together as a team. That's really a value of the Center," she adds. "Working in teams adds value to the research, makes it easier and makes it more fun."
Profile written by Meghan Mandeville.
Photos by Joanie Tobin, Tufts University Photo.
This story originally ran on Sept. 18, 2006.