Debbie Knight

Working together…

In observation on January 12, 2011 at 12:22 pm

I overheard a conversation between two researchers this morning while I was in the parking garage elevator. It was clear to this eavesdropper that they knew a little about each other’s research but not much. Most of the conversation on the ride down from the sixth floor was a general exchange of pleasantries.  During the course of that brief conversation, one researcher admitted he didn’t have any contact with the clinical side like the other researcher did.  By the time they reached the ground floor, they were making arrangements to discuss working together on a research project.

In the science world and, especially at a university, that’s called “collaboration,” and, ideally, that’s how science should work.

The university setting is a great place to establish collaborations. I’ve seen it happen quite a bit over the years.

Many of the collaborations happen between researchers within the same department.  Departmental meetings and seminars where researchers share their current work  provide ample opportunities for scientists to discuss how they could help each other out or what problems they might have had to overcome or that they need help in overcoming.

Collaborations between researchers in different university colleges (each made up of several related departments) have become increasingly commonplace at the university where I work.  Engineers working closely with architects or medical doctors or agricultural researchers are a few examples of the interdisciplinary research that can happen.

My husband, who is a biologist, works with a chemistry professor on how the chemical composition of the really small dust-like particles (or nanoparticulate material) that make up air pollutants affect biological systems  (such as human beings). When they first started this collaboration, there was a steep learning curve for each of them.  The biologist had to learn what the chemist was really saying (and vice versa) before they could make the collaboration work.  After several years of a successful collaboration, they have little trouble with communicating across disciplines.

Collaborations are the ideal, scientists freely sharing information with fellow scientists. However, in the dash to get grant funding and to have their work published  first in scientific journals, many scientists have become fiercely competitive.  Publishing your discovery before any one else can “scoop” you is the status quo these days — but that’s a topic for another day.

When things are working well, collaborations happen. And that is, in my experience, the way science should happen:  scientists helping scientists, for the good of science and mankind.

Yes, it’s a bit idealistic, but over the years I’ve seen both scenarios.  And  so far the unofficial result is that more can be accomplished by working together – ideas as well as results.

I wish the two researchers from the elevator good luck in forging a collaboration and keeping the spirit of science alive and well!

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