Science Collaboration 101 as Taught by Graduate Student Researchers
Researchers with different Energy Frontier Research Centers share their tips for working together.
No scientist is an island, contrary to the lone genius myth. Research is a team effort, with individual scientists working together and learning from each other for more than safety reasons. As Institute for Quantum Matter (IQM) Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) graduate student Juan Chamorro said, “We work together with people of different areas of expertise so that projects can be completed faster. We have everything being done simultaneously and [produce] high-quality work because people know what they’re doing [in their area].” Research instruments are expensive and difficult to transport, and the techniques often require particular expertise, meaning more collaboration. The frontiers of knowledge often lie where different disciplines meet; taming those frontiers means bringing experts from different nearby disciplines together. Effective collaborations expand the scope of possible research and generate entirely new capabilities for all members of the team.
How does one collaborate most effectively? To answer this question, we interviewed four graduate students from different EFRCs. All 46 of the centers are hotbeds of interdisciplinary collaboration. The four students providing their opinions here represent different areas of science. The IQM focuses on making the weird physics that normally happens on length scales of atoms and molecules manifest in materials on much larger size scales. These studies may potentially enable new applications, like quantum computers and new types of sensors. The Center for Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) investigates the molecular mechanisms that control electron flow during chemical reactions and bonding. The Center for Hierarchical Waste Form Materials (CHWM) develops new ways of immobilizing nuclear waste by storing it in materials that have several length scales of order (hierarchical materials). The Photonics at Thermodynamic Limits (PTL) center develops and studies new materials that push the boundaries of what light (photons) can do.
Why ask graduate students? They are responsible for the day-to-day research in collaborations, and they know what works and what doesn’t from their view in the research trenches. The students—Juan Chamorro of IQM, Fariah Hayee of PTL, Natasha Pence of BETCy, and Kristen Pace of CHWM—identified the following four tips for improving scientific collaborations:
1. Time together is key
Collaborations across different institutions offer fruitful access to an expanded range of expertise and instrumentation. Interaction is crucial to success—whether it happens in person, over an internet chat, or through video conference.
Juan Chamorro (IQM): “What’s helped has been time: getting together and discussing ideas, waiting, just learning, and sometimes just watching people while they do what they do has given me the opportunity to learn about things I didn’t know before.”
Fariah Hayee (PTL): “In our EFRC, we have weekly teleconferences and also bring everyone together for a workshop at least twice per year. These hands-on events have been very helpful in fostering collaboration and inspiring new ideas.”
Natasha Pence (BETCy): “We have monthly video conference meetings at our EFRC where PIs [principal investigators], grad students, and postdocs are all involved.”
Kristen Pace (CHWM): “Conversation makes collaborations effective, which can be difficult to have over long distances. Emails tend to be more official and formal, so people tend to be less willing to throw out ideas when they are not face-to-face. Our EFRC has an annual ‘all hands’ meeting to help with this where, for 2 to 3 days, everyone gets together in one location and gives research updates. Students give poster presentations and talks, mingling with each other and having those face-to-face interactions.”
2. Develop a common language for effective communication
A physicist, chemist, and biologist will see a given problem differently and translate that problem using language (and jargon) related to their fields. They must avoid miscommunications to successfully work together.
Kristen Pace (CHWM): “I was working with computational modelers to predict the stability of a material. I sent my data and wanted to know if the structure was stable or not. This was not as straightforward a question as I originally thought. We were only able to answer this question once we established what ’stability’ meant.”
Natasha Pence (BETCy): “With collaborative work with people from different fields, people often have different terminology so face-to-face communication is important for determining how to phrase things so that everyone can understand each other.”
3. Be direct in your communication
Coordination is necessary for groups of researchers to actually work together. It is important to clearly state what you need, what you’ve done, and what you can do in a respectful and considerate manner. This will help everyone know what’s going on and push the collaboration forward, making sure that the needs of each collaborator are met.
Natasha Pence (BETCy): “The biggest challenge I’ve faced is writing papers. We all have our own writing styles, ideas on figures, organization ideas, and timelines, so it can be challenging to come to consensus. One thing that really helps with this is to be direct through email and give deadlines.”
Juan Chamorro (IQM): “Sometimes, with large groups of collaborators, it can be difficult to keep everyone in line and know what’s going on where. Things can get complicated if there is a lack of communication. We’re talking about making sure that people respond to emails, knowing if everyone’s available for a meeting, and knowing the timeline it takes for one of our samples to get to [our collaborators] and how long it takes them to do their measurements…We do email, video chats, and Zoom teleconferences. Email is usually the primary mode of communication, but often our collaborators end up coming to us or we go to them.”
Fariah Hayee (PTL): “We chat on Slack [a collaboration tool] regularly and arrange Skype meetings when necessary to ensure clear communication… Emails can get buried and aren’t the best for quick responses. Multiperson texts are difficult to manage, but Slack was great for regular direct communication and mimicking a face-to-face chat.”
4. Learn how your collaborators do what they do
Working together means learning what your collaborators do and teaching them what you do.
Kristen Pace (CHWM): “To collaborate well, you need to learn about what you are asking your collaborator to do. When you just send data and ask a question, what may seem like a straightforward question and answer in your field may have many important caveats in the other field.”
Fariah Hayee (PTL): “For an effective collaboration, it is essential to be respectful of each other’s opinion and time. [When entering a new field], it can be difficult to know who can help you the most. To help with this, PTL has a tutorial every week to learn about current EFRC projects that are yet to be published and each group’s unique experimental capabilities.”
Following these tips and practices should improve the effectiveness of interdisciplinary collaboration beyond the EFRCs. What are you waiting for? Go forth and work together.
The researchers in their own words
Juan Chamorro, IQM EFRC, second-year Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University, Department of Chemistry, McQueen Lab: “I study electronic, topological, and magnetic materials.”
Natasha Pence, BETCy EFRC, fifth-year Ph.D. student at Montana State University, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Peters Lab: “I study mechanisms to control electron transfer in hydrogenase and nitrogenase enzyme systems. These processes (reducing nitrogen to ammonia or oxidizing molecular hydrogen) require significant activation energies and have important implications for catalysis science.”
Kristen Pace, CHWM EFRC, third-year Ph.D. student at University of South Carolina, Department of Chemistry and BioChemistry, zur Loye Lab: “I’m creating a set of hierarchical materials called salt inclusion materials (SIMs). We are interested in assessing new materials like SIMs for nuclear waste storage applications. For my group, this means exploring some of the fundamental chemistry that governs the physical properties of such materials.”
Fariah Hayee, PTL EFRC, fifth-year Ph.D. student at Stanford University, Department of Electrical Engineering, Dionne Lab: “I investigate the optical properties of 2-D van Der Waal’s materials, which host defects that act as very bright and narrow-linewidth quantum emitters for energy, computing, communications, and sensing applications. I use electron microscopy to understand how the material’s optical emission is related to their atomic-scale structure.”
The Department of Energy, Office of Science, Basic Energy Sciences funds the Energy Frontier Research Centers.
About the author(s):
Elizabeth “Lisa” Pogue is a materials scientist and postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University working in the McQueen lab. She is a member of the Institute of Quantum Matter Energy Frontier Research Center and is synthesizing new quantum materials. For her doctoral work at University of Illinois in the Rockett and Shoemaker Labs, Lisa investigated phase stability, defects, and structures of materials in the copper-zinc-tin-sulfur system. These materials are of interest as Earth-abundant, non-toxic, and inexpensive thin film solar cells.