Challenges of Boundary Crossing in Graduate Training for Coupled Human-Natural Systems Research

  • Elizabeth G. KingEmail author
  • Nathan Nibbelink


Most National Science Foundation Coupled Human Natural Systems projects entail graduate training. This chapter discusses the complex terrain of training and mentorship for collaborative research that crosses disciplinary, transdisciplinary, and cultural/geographic boundaries. We argue that the training process itself entails many boundary-crossing challenges within the academic environment. We use as a case study the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia, a unique program dedicated to advancing interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research in conservation and sustainability. We draw parallels to the thematic issues that cross-cut the contributions to this volume, and explore effective pedagogical innovations, organizational strategies, pitfalls, and insights for crossing intra-academic boundaries to provide Ph.D. training for the next generation of boundary-crossing scientists.



The ideas and views herein were inspired by stimulating collaboration and camaraderie with many individuals associated with the ICON Ph.D. program and the Center for Integrative Conservation Research (CICR) at the University of Georgia. Pete Brosius, Laura German, Nik Heynen, Cathy Pringle, Jenn Rice, and Meredith Welch-Devine have been at the core of ICON efforts, and many other ICON and CICR Affiliates have contributed immensely. We thank all the ICON students, who continue to the shape of the program through their experience and thoughtful feedback. We thank UGA’s leadership (deans and staff at several levels) for their generous support, guidance, and patience through the cross-boundary challenges. We also thank Talley Vodicka, for her expert program support, feedback, and intellectual contributions in all ICON endeavors. King extends gratitude to her collaborators at the intersection of ICON, CICR, and an NSF-sponsored CNH research project: Laura German, Ryan Unks, and Gabriele Volpato. Their project was supported by the US National Science Foundation (Grant No. 1313659) and conducted with permission of the Government of Kenya (Permit NCST/RRI/12/1/MAS/108). We also thank Arun Agrawal for the invitation to participate in the symposium at the 2017 Association of American Geographers meeting, which led to this edited volume, and Stephen Perz for spearheading its preparation.


  1. Adger, W. N., & Jordan, A. (2009). Governing Sustainability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Armitage, D., & Plummer, R. (2010). Adapting and Transforming: Governance for Navigating Change. In R. Plummer & D. Armitage (Eds.), Adaptive Capacity and Environmental Governance (pp. 287–302). Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bosque-Pérez, N. A., Klos, P. Z., Force, J. E., Waits, L. P., Cleary, K., Rhoades, P., et al. (2016). A Pedagogical Model for Team-Based, Problem-Focused Interdisciplinary Doctoral Education. BioScience, 66(6), 477–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brister, E. (2016). Disciplinary Capture and Epistemological Obstacles to Interdisciplinary Research: Lessons from Central African Conservation Disputes. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 56, 82–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Eigenbrode, S. D., O’Rourke, M., Wulfhorst, J. D., Althoff, D. M., Goldberg, C. S., Merrill, K., et al. (2007). Employing Philosophical Dialogue in Collaborative Science. BioScience, 57(1), 55–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Epstein, A. W., & Stein, A. (2014). Rivers and Dams: A Multiplayer Role-Play Game That Promotes Learning in Collaboration and Team-Oriented Communication. Seventh Symposium on Engineering and Liberal Education, Union College, Schenectady, NY (abstract available at, p. 2021).
  7. Evely, A. C., Fazey, I., Pinard, M., & Lambin, X. (2008). The Influence of Philosophical Perspectives in Integrative Research: A Conservation Case Study in the Cairngorms National Park. Ecology and Society, 13(2), 52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P., & Norberg, J. (2005). Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 30, 441–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fortuin, K. P. J., & van Koppen, C. S. A. (2016). Teaching and Learning Reflexive Skills in Inter- and Transdisciplinary Research: A Framework and Its Application in Environmental Science Education. Environmental Education Research, 22(5), 697–716.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hackett, E. J., & Rhoten, D. R. (2009). The Snowbird Charrette: Integrative Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Environmental Research Design. Minerva, 47, 407–440.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Kolata, G. (2016, July 14). So Many Research Scientists, So Few Professorships (p. A3). New York Times.Google Scholar
  12. Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2012). Experiential Learning Theory. In N. M. Seel (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (pp. 1215–1219). Boston, MA: Springer US.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., et al. (2012). Transdisciplinary Research in Sustainability Science: Practice, Principles, and Challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Larson, R. C., Ghaffarzadegan, N., & Xue, Y. (2014). Too Many Ph.D. Graduates or Too Few Academic Job Openings: The Basic Reproductive Number R(0) in Academia. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31(6), 745–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Lélé, S., & Norgaard, R. B. (2005). Practicing Interdisciplinarity. BioScience, 55(11), 967–975.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lucas, J., Gora, E., & Alonso, A. (2017). A View of the Global Conservation Job Market and How to Succeed in It. Conservation Biology, 31(6), 1223–1231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. McShane, T. O., Hirsch, P. D., Tran Chi, T., Songorwa, A. N., Kinzig, A., Monteferri, B., et al. (2011). Hard Choices: Making Trade-Offs Between Biodiversity Conservation and Human Well-Being. Biological Conservation, 144(3), 966–972.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Miller, T. R., Baird, T. D., Littlefield, C. M., Kofinas, G., Chapin Iii, F. S., & Redman, C. L. (2008). Epistemological Pluralism: Reorganizing Interdisciplinary Research. Ecology and Society, 13(2), 46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Moon, K., & Blackman, D. (2014). A Guide to Understanding Social Science Research for Natural Scientists. Conservation Biology, 28(5), 1167–1177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Murphy, B. L. (2011). From Interdisciplinary to Inter-epistemological Approaches: Confronting the Challenges of Integrated Climate Change Research. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien, 55(4), 490–509.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. National Science Board. (2016). Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation.Google Scholar
  22. NRC (National Research Council). (2014). Convergence: Facilitating Transdisciplinary Integration of Life Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering, and Beyond. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  23. O’Rourke, M., & Crowley, S. J. (2013). Philosophical Intervention and Cross-Disciplinary Science: The Story of the Toolbox Project. Synthese, 190(11), 1937–1954.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Olsson, P., Gunderson, L. H., Carpenter, S. R., Ryan, P., Lebel, L., Folke, C., et al. (2006). Shooting the Rapids: Navigating Transitions to Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 11(1), 18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Perz, S. G. (2016). Crossing Boundaries for Collaboration: Conservation and Development Projects in the Amazon. New York, NY: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  26. Popa, F., Guillermin, M., & Dedeurwaerdere, T. (2015). A Pragmatist Approach to Transdisciplinarity in Sustainability Research: From Complex Systems Theory to Reflexive Science. Futures, 65, 45–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Schwartz, M. W., Hiers, J. K., Davis, F. W., Garfin, G. M., Jackson, S. T., Terando, A. J., et al. (2017). Developing a Translational Ecology Workforce. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 15(10), 587–596.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Uhlenbrook, S., & de Jong, E. (2012). T-shaped Competency Profile for Water Professionals of the Future. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 16(10), 3475–3483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Walker, B. H., Holling, C. S., Carpenter, S. R., & Kinzig, A. P. (2004). Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 9(2), 5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Weissmann, J. (2013). How Many Ph.D.’s Actually Get to Become College Professors? The Atlantic. Retrieved from
  31. Welch-Devine, M., Hardy, D., Brosius, J. P., & Heynen, N. (2014). A Pedagogical Model for Integrative Training in Conservation and Sustainability. Ecology and Society, 19(2), 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GeorgiaAthensUSA

Personalised recommendations