Tools for Discovery: Aleia McCord

Aleia McCord is part of the new class of Marie Christine Kohler Fellows @ WID, a group of graduate and professional students focused on transdisciplinary thought. McCord has a Master’s degree in Environment and Resources from the Nelson Institute at UW-Madison, where she is currently working towards a doctorate degree. As the academic year and McCord’s fellowship began, we caught up with her to learn about her Tools for Discovery.

Aleia McCord
Aleia McCord

What do you work on?

I research anaerobic digestion in Uganda. Specifically, I collaborate with a network of researchers, companies, development agencies, local governments, community leaders, and schools to understand whether a technology that transforms waste into cookfuel and fertilizer has delivered on its development promises to improve indoor air quality, public sanitation, and agricultural yields.

What are your tools for analysis?

Our highly interdisciplinary work integrates methods from the social and natural sciences. For our indoor air quality study, we combine techniques like ion chromatography (IC) to analyze air samples with on-site interviews with cooks.  For our work understanding public sanitation, we culture indicator organisms like E. coli and fecal coliform, monitor temperature, and record information about gas production while also taking the time to hear from biogas system owners about their management strategies.

“I like to work in bright, noisy, public spaces to spur creativity and then retreat to quiet, dark rooms to work out the details.”

-Aleia McCord

Tools for Writing?

I don’t use anything fancier than typical word processing (Microsoft Word) and citation management software (EndNote).  My approach to writing is to start with a quickly-written nonsensical draft and keep editing until the ideas start to clarify themselves. I like to work in bright, noisy, public spaces to spur creativity and then retreat to quiet, dark rooms to work out the details.

Tools for Collaboration?

We spend a lot of time working across multiple time zones on Skype, Google Hangouts, WhatsApp, and Viber. When it comes to data management, our team has struggled to find good tools meet our needs. Because internet access is expensive and often unreliable in Uganda, we need tools that (1) minimize data usage, (2) enable us to access and work on files off-line, and (3) offer clear documentation of revisions. Over the years, we’ve come up with a hodgepodge of approaches that use a combination of email, Google Docs, and Dropbox to meet most of our data sharing needs. Our policy is to keep three copies of everything: one on paper, one on a computer or hard drive, and one on the cloud.

Your ultimate tool for discovery?

Ears and patience. I’ve found that teams of people working together make the most exciting discoveries, and successful teamwork requires excellent listening skills. Listening is more than just taking good notes at one meeting. Good listening evolves over time and requires trust, respect, and shared goals.

— curated by Nolan Lendved