Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Collaboration in science: how to ignite your inner Power Ranger

Muddling along on our own, scientists can carry out experiments, come up with hypotheses to test, and make discoveries—but I think it’s far less interesting than combining strengths and working with other scientists to tackle a problem. My colleague Aaron Hartmann recently posted an article about mentorship and collaboration on his Union Tribune blog, which inspired me to reflect on my own experiences working with a range of scientists.

The Power Rangers have to combine strengths so each can transform into a superhero; combining different scientific expertise to address a common question strengthens the effectiveness of each individual’s contribution.

Here are just a few benefits of collaboration:

1. Fieldwork is way more awesome and effective. Fieldwork is usually exhausting, frustrating, and full of unexpected challenges. Having other people to laugh with and help come up with work-arounds, as well as to inspire you to quit whining and get back in the water (my favorite trip involved a lot of the phrase “harden the f*&$ up”), means you’ll get more accomplished. Note, however, that there may be a critical-mass effect, where above a certain group size, things can rapidly spin into chaos and infighting

Without this collaboration, I wouldn't have experienced the joys involved in using a pile-driver to slam a metal pipe into the lagoon sediments in Palmyra.

2. You don’t have to learn everything yourself. You don’t have to learn French to communicate with a French-speaker if you have an intermediary who can translate. However, it’s important to have a working knowledge such that you might detect when the translation is incorrect: if you hear “dix” and the translator tells you the cost is $20, he is attempting to swindle you. Similarly, you don’t want to just take your collaborator’s word for it that what they have contributed is correct, but fully reading all of the background literature on, for instance, organic chemistry, is overkill.

3.  You have a built-in peer-review system. Before anything is published in the great and hallowed Scientific Literature (at least in esteemed journals) it is first reviewed by other experts for scientific rigor and clarity (and often whether it is sufficiently interesting). The peer-review process can be painful: people who think they are the bees knees get to rip apart your work under the protection of anonymity, often taking time to pass judgment on your character while they’re at it. Your co-authors might save you some discomfort by (hopefully more gently) suggesting that what you have put together stinks before you officially submit it.

Here, 25 scientists collaborate on enjoying Canadian Thanksgiving.

 4. You get to learn new and unexpected things. Though as a minor player, I’ve gotten to contribute to projects like: developing a new ocean-water tracer using radioactive fall-out from nuclear weapons testing; estimating changes in coral growth rates due to atmospheric aerosols; and comparing the deliciousness of different types of algae to reef fish.

5. They inspire new projects and increase your productivity. Maybe I’m just a defective scientist, but I find coming up with new, feasible (that part is important) projects the most daunting part of the endeavor. Talks with colleagues are totally key for me, helping me to see where my skills can be applied to new questions. Continuing to work on a project together can help speed things along, too--now you aren't the only one bummed when work is languishing in a forgotten folder at the bottom of your "important" pile.

So, what are you waiting for?

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