Greater than the sum of its parts?

Reflecting on multidisciplinary working

Last month, a group of staff from across the University began working on a public engagement project involving Virtual Reality, Psychology, Biomedical Science and prosthetics. The Wellcome Trust Society Award which funds this work describes the project as follows:

Virtual Reality Prosthetics- Body and Mind will engage the public in cutting-edge biomedical and technological research. Interactive experiences and standalone artefacts relating to real-life challenges will stimulate interest, excitement and debate about joint physiology, limb loss, and the psychological impact of prosthetic choice and use. Activities will build upon a previous interdisciplinary project and leave a legacy of online materials to encourage further learning and debate.

But where did all this begin?

Flash back to September 2013 when over 100 SHU academics from a wide range of disciplines were shoehorned into a so-called ‘sandpit’ event, (to quote the EPSRC’s definition) ‘to drive lateral thinking and radical approaches to address research challenges.’

Being truly innovative is always a challenge. More often than not, what is claimed as ‘new’ is merely a reinvention of a tried and tested entity, with a few bells and whistles added for effect. The format of the sandpit format however provided an environment where we could venture beyond our subject-specific silos and explore possible collaborations.

In our case, the result was a £20k SHU grant for ‘Exploring Virtual Reality Prosthetics’ , delivered over six months between January and June 2014. The project included Games Development, Industrial Design, Materials Engineering, Biomedical Research, Psychology and Physiotherapy. Public engagement also formed a vital element, and involved us from the outset in seeking external partners, including Sheffield University Technical College. Our two initial aims were:

  1. To use the expertise of a multi-disciplinary team together with input from users and young people to develop a methodology for prostheses design and assessment, and
  2. To develop a Virtual Reality (VR) system to evaluate the acceptability of resulting designs for upper limb prostheses.

During the initial project and thereafter, strong bonds developed between the group members, allowing us to continue to work collaboratively, engage additional external collaborators, and ultimately make a successful application for funding to take the work to the next stage amounting to a tenfold increase on our initial grant.


My experience of multidisciplinary working has been transformational. Not only have I learnt a great deal about the other subjects from my colleagues, but I have also learnt about myself as a project manager and team player. Below I have tried to summarise the benefits as I see them for the team as a whole:

A different way of working

With such a range of disciplines, in addition to their subject specific knowledge and skills, each team member brings a new angle and approach. This ‘difference’ requires a respectful, collaborative way of working, and has resulted in a comfortable democracy which enables us all to speak and be heard. It also allows the ‘weird and whacky’ to be explored, and encourages us to be creative in our thinking. For example, our public ‘kick-off event’ will focus on the tension between fashion and function in prosthetic design and use and society’s views of ‘normality’ even though none of us are experts in these fields ourselves.


All team members are aware that this is new and exciting territory, and the need to learn from one another and from external experts and partners is paramount. We are constantly ‘horizon scanning’ for developments, and for opportunities which could take our collaboration and research in new directions. The success of this approach has already allowed the original team to successfully engage with new partners such as the NHS, a prosthetics manufacturer and service users, and take the work into previously unplanned territory, including exploring the treatment of phantom limb pain.


The public engagement element of this collaborative work has been centre-stage throughout, and has acted as a continual focus for team members. Bringing cutting-edge research into the public domain is in the forefront of our thinking, and has provided a useful sounding board for ideas and different approaches.

Infectious energy and enthusiasm

The energy within the team is almost palpable, and this spirit of cooperation and openness has been infectious, with additional partners joining us throughout. In my view, the imperative and freedom to be creative, initially fostered at the sandpit event, has enabled us to grow positive working relationships and the confidence to offer ideas, while being able to challenge one another respectfully.

It’s been emotional

There has another element however – a magic ingredient, if you will – which is the glue that has held us together, and this is the simple fact that we all like each other. It is possible to work in multidisciplinary teams and achieve project goals even if that ingredient is missing, but spending time forging those relationships has made our experience all the more enjoyable.

Challenges and final thoughts

In seeking guidance while preparing to write this blog, I was advised to reflect not only on the benefits of multidisciplinary working, but also on the challenges. Other than the obvious practical issues of co-ordinating diaries and ensuring effective communication, I can think of few difficulties, and in truth, my experience has been extremely positive.

As a final note, I no longer find it a problem to say ‘I don’t know’ when asked for my view on a course of action. Assured in the knowledge that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’, I am confident that our team will find a solution.

Denise Eaton

Denise manages the Virtual Reality Prosthetics – Body and Mind project and is a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Science Education/ Centre for Education and Inclusion Research, Sheffield Institute of Education






One response to “Greater than the sum of its parts?”

  1. […] Denise has published an article on the SIOE blog about the Wellcome Trust project – reflecting on the value of multidisciplinary working. Denise argues that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. Check it out here.  […]

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