Name: Zelinna Pablo
Position: Australian Research Council (ARC) Senior Research Fellow
Company: Western Sydney University
What do you enjoy the most, working in the field of construction & development?
I’m a scholar originally from the field of work and organisation theory. These days I do full time research on collaboration in project-based settings. For me, there are two things that make the construction and development domain special.
First, there is, inevitably, the field’s unique focus on creating something real and tangible. People in construction collaborate, just like in any other field, but in the end, collaboration has a clear outcome. Oftentimes an innovation is created: a new type of prefabricated panel, a novel concrete slab, a tablet application that tracks construction quality in detailed ways. As a researcher I have come to appreciate how grounded the work is and how people working together create – pardon the pun – such concrete results.
Second, the domain of construction offers academics like me an opportunity to do relevant research. We researchers have been accused of hiding in ivory towers, happily tinkering away at theoretical models while the rest of the world goes by. In the six years of researching in construction, I’ve seen opportunities to leave the tower and make an impact: theories and models translated, for example, into commercialised training resources that could actually make a difference.
Where do you see your life in the next 5 years, what possibilities are ahead of you?
The question of “possibilities” is an important question to ask, even when the next few years are clouded by the palpable uncertainties that a global pandemic brings.
Thankfully I have a long enough history to know how I can best make a contribution, even if the job landscape might undergo some profound changes. I have always loved writing, communicating and teaching. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed doing qualitative research that looks closely at people, technological innovation and collaboration. I think I will still be working in this space five years from now, albeit possibly in a role re-shaped by recent global changes. I would also like to think I will still be working in the context of housing and the built environment. A lot of good research is already being done here, but I think there’s still a lot of untapped opportunity for a researcher like me – to closely examine the “people” aspect of innovative construction projects using the kind qualitative methods that I use.
If you could write a letter to a 13-year-old ‘you’ what would you say?
I’d begin by saying, “You don’t know it now, but your career path is in academe. And while that sounds superbly un-cool, you will love the writing, you will thrive on the deep work, and you will be fortunate enough to be mentored by the best.”
I think an academic career is underappreciated by most young people. My 13-year-old self would have been horrified to be told she would do a doctorate, then take a postdoctoral position, then take a second postdoctoral position. I certainly didn’t plan to take this path. But people like these are needed in domains like construction. It’s certainly important to have good builders, engineers, designers, project managers, developers. But it’s also important to have people who are able to step back, survey the big picture, identify the problems, gather data in a painstaking way, spend months and even years doing analysis, then come back and say, here are some new directions we can take. That’s what academics bring to the table. We’re privileged to have the time and the headspace to do that kind of deep work.
What are 3 skills you have had to develop to get to where you are presently?
- Crossing disciplinary boundaries is one. I’m an organisational theorist who landed in the construction domain six years ago. I’ve learned, and am still learning, the language of the built environment. I can write about things like “waffle footings” and “shower setdowns” now, but in the beginning, my mentor and I used to joke that I didn’t know what a contractor was. It takes time and patience to learn to embrace the nuances of a new discipline, so not everyone chooses the pathway of inter-disciplinary research.
- Crossing cultural boundaries is another. Before going into research in Australia, I did multiple rounds of what my friends call “academic tourism”, getting scholarships and grants in different places and doing my version of “going native” around the world. My son loves stories about my residency status in five very different countries. I would like to think that this has heightened my inter-cultural sensitivities and enriched the way that I conduct case studies, as well as interact with colleagues. This is very important in cosmopolitan places like Sydney and Melbourne, where I have spent most of my time.
- Crossing the theory-practice divide is the third, although I think this divide is more permeable than people think. I’ve had the opportunity to work on two construction research projects, three years each, funded by the Australian Research Council. These projects are awarded following a very competitive selection process and are very intense. The first project was conceptually grounded but very industry facing. The second focused on theoretical development. I can move through the entire theory-practice spectrum now, speaking the language of theory but also translating theories into more practical, actionable discourses.