Coffee for the good of science

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Coffee breaks help generate a rapport between colleagues and avoid the need to settle disputes with cage matches. Image: mmaweekly.com

 

Locked away in our laboratories, researchers tussle for access to equipment and resources. The overriding sensation is a tense mutual respect. We generally acknowledge each other’s space and equipment but this respect is tenuous and can breakdown in an instant.

Something can go slightly wrong on a project and suddenly next week’s deadline is ominously close and that person needs all the equipment RIGHT NOW. This then encroaches on other people’s deadlines as resources they have booked and planned to use are suddenly inaccessible, and the whole ‘mutual respect’ thing descends into cage matches.

That isn’t quite true. We haven’t got a cage in the lab yet but I’m sure it’s included in next year’s budget.

This is one of the key reasons why research institutes usually have a ‘social club’. It’s a way of forcing people to get to know each other outside the lab in friendly environments and even footing. The same can be said for such activities as ‘lunch’ or ‘coffee breaks’.

Anything that involves the coming together of people – preferably in combination with food and drink intake – can improve relations.

As science becomes more multidisciplinary, being able to get along with other people who are not quite in the same team or have the same objectives is an increasingly important skill. Getting out of the lab and gathering around food with colleagues is a simple but effective method for creating better relationships and building stronger teams.

So go on, put down that pipette and have a coffee. It’s for the good of science.

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Post PhD perks

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Attending conferences can be hard work but always worth the effort. Image: wallpaper.com

 

The best perks we get as researchers are not actually pens that are shaped like micropipettes. Nor is it syringe-shaped highlighters, sticky-note paper, or any of the other pretty awesome free stuff that I’ve scored from various lab equipment suppliers over the years. It is the chance to attend international conferences.

This notion was brought to my attention very early in my honours degree. If I do really good work, not only might I save the world and get a Nobel Prize but I would also be PAID to present my work overseas somewhere. And, better than that, people might actually want to hear what I have to say and I could travel around lecturing to various universities.

That was the dream. That dream lead me to a PhD and, eventually, to reality. I am becoming increasingly suspicious that my research may not directly save the world and, unless serendipity steps up sometime, a Nobel Prize may not be heading my way anytime soon. But I might contact the committee again anyway, just in case they lost my number.

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The micropipette pen is prized among lab-supplier free stuff. Image: Plaid ninja

 

One thing reality has shown me is that I do have is the real chance to present at a conference. At this time of year many of us start to peruse the conference alert websites and prepare abstracts for faraway places with relevant topics.

Conferences are where ideas are shared and networks and collaborations are formed. It’s also just cool to get paid to travel regardless of the reams of paperwork that inevitably ensues.

And in meeting other researchers, there is always the possibility that a new idea will spark a stream of thought that leads to a Nobel prize-winning breakthrough, or that a new collaboration will lead to a discovery that will ultimately lead to the world being saved. Hope springs eternal.

At the very least, if all else fails, attending the conference will invariably bring me more lab-supplier-stamped free stuff. And it’s almost worth it just for that.

Lab rats no longer play when the cat’s gone away

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Cats let lab rats play

The best and most fun part about being a research scientist is getting results, making sense of them and adding your new-found knowledge to the pool of scientific understanding. Some might consider something else more fun – like, anything else – but this is my driving force. This is also why I can’t leave the lab for a life of a research manager.

I recently got a taste of managerial life when my boss was off swanning around on leave for a couple of months while the rest of us mere lab rats spread his work load amongst ourselves. It was so much less fun than lab work.

First there was the research project coordination. This was kind of fun. In a way. I was in charge of chasing collaborations with internal and external research groups, keeping tabs on existing projects and attempting to engage other groups in new and improved project ideas.

This also meant chasing funding. Funding applications are fun in much the same way that all-night road works are enjoyable to listen to. And have the same effect on your mood. I have experience in both in recent weeks. In the beginning there is the promise of something new and interesting that could be undertaken. In the end there is just frustration, jarred nerves and exhaustion.

Then there were the mysterious internal processes that were never explained until after I had done something the wrong way. What I thought were very straightforward processes of knowledge dissemination required many rounds of hitherto unheard of approval from people I didn’t know were even interested in the project. This must have been taught somewhere along the managerial succession line and assumed to be common knowledge. Which presumably works well until a lab rat steps into that position all of a sudden.

Finally, and this is the killer, there was the administrative report writing. Wave upon wave of updates and reports that need to be written for everyone from line managers all the way up to the board and the funding body. And never in the same format. Each wanted the report in a slightly different way. This meant hours of non-lab work work and non-academic paper writing writing, which, as a research scientist, made no sense.

For all the trial and tribulations of lab work, the painful, horrible days of accidently spilling something and subsequently having to redo several weeks-worth of work, as well as the carefully planned and executed experiments that for no particular reason just don’t work, it is still so much more enjoyable and rewarding than management.

My boss has now returned to much fanfare and rejoicing. He has again shouldered the managerial burden and we lab rats are free to play in the lab, making data and writing academic papers just as it should be.

Standing out from the crowd

Standing out from the crowd is becoming more essential for successful research.

The old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is a lie. It’s what you know and who you know that counts. Particularly in research. The foundation of research is knowledge and solid experimental designs and definitely you need to know your stuff. But there’s also no point doing marvellous research if your data is never published, never read or never cited. It’s also now essential to know people to get the collaborations to get the grants to start research.

This is where self-promotion and networking become critical. Happily there are many avenues for making your work stand out in a data-drenched world.

Mainstream media

Believe it or not, researchers will pay attention to mainstream media. This can be a really useful way of telling people about the great work you’re doing as well as hearing about what other research is out there. A snippet on the nightly news, a feature on a radio station or a stint on one of the science shows can get you noticed by someone outside your field in areas that you may not even know exist.

The best way is to pitch a story to a journalist. Preferably use an angle about something that is currently being discussed in the media to which your work somehow – no matter how loosely – relates.

Also let a journalist know if you’re doing something that just sounds awesome. Like using the Synchrotron for wine research, for example. Or going on an expedition to the Arctic tundra to find new bioactive peptides that may be the next cure for heart disease.

A media release after you’ve published your research in a peer-reviewed journal can still be a good way to go but put some thought into the timing of the media release to get you bigger bang for you buck. It may be worth holding off on releasing the news to coincide with a big event or conference in your field at a time when more people in the field are likely to be tuning into the mainstream media.

Social media

Published a paper recently? Tweet about it! Doing something cool? Take a photo and Instagram it! There are so many avenues for social media it is a missed opportunity not to utilize them.

The more people know that you’re working in a particular area the more likely they are to seek out your work amongst the – probably – hundreds of papers in the field. And the more people who read your work, the more likely your paper is to get cited.

So do it, start a Twitter account…and use it!

Non-peer-reviewed publications

Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is the benchmark standard of any research scientist and close attention is paid to nuanced differences in citation indices. Yet non-peered reviewed publications invite a wider readership and can therefore also be of value.

These publications can be industry journals, broader science journals like New Scientist, and even society publications for members, such the Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s rag, Chemistry Australia. It is well worth getting mentioned in these types of journals to get more traffic to your peer-reviewed publications.

Online resources

Other, less conventional publications are also of value. An industry blog can have a greater audience than a printed publication and some popular science sites such as Sciengist.com are good for broadening your readership. It is worth keeping track of which blogs are being written in your field and who is reading them.

AGMs

Crazy, I know. As well as scientific society publications, annual general meetings of these organisations can be a great way to diversify your networks and mix with people in slightly different fields. The broader your society memberships, the broader your potential collaborations and the happier the potential funding body.

Conferences

The biggest perk of working in science is the international conference. Even attending an interstate or even local conference is nothing to sneeze at. These are the biggest gatherings of researchers and the best and most important networking events. Networking is essential. Tips for doing it right can be found here.

It is always important to speak to people in your field but also really interesting to speak to people outside your field. Poster sessions are a great way of finding out what other people are doing and why. The more people you can connect with at a conference the more likely useful ideas and collaborations will come your way.

All this networking and getting noticed takes time. But it will be time well spent if a chance encounter leads to another citation, new discovery, or even that elusive successful grant application.

Bringing together ancient foes for the benefit of humanity

Uniting the scientific disciplines is almost like uniting ancient enemies

Scientific disciplines have been increasingly segregated for 300 years. This works brilliantly to achieve a deeper understanding of the world around us but it’s less helpful for solving the problems of the world. Collaborations are now essential for moving science forward but how easy will it be to bridge the yawning chasms between disciplines?

Years of study still focuses students in a particular discipline. This is still essential for ground-breaking research in one area and yet the research jobs of the future will have to include more broadly skilled scientists.

The main problem is language. Limited cross-discipline association for centuries has created an almost Darwin-like speciation of narrow-skilled scientists who can scarcely communicate with other scientists.

This is useful for nerd jokes. The funniest jokes are those that you know there are people who just won’t get it.

Pure genius

It is still a mystery as to why people think there is some sort of overriding scientific jargon when the scientists themselves can’t speak to each other. The divide is still evident in my lab with limited associations between chemists and biologists.

Some jokes never get old

On a good day, a synthetic chemist may speak in a similar manner to a natural products chemist and yet these organic chemists will not communicate with an inorganic chemist. Unless the inorganic chemist is surrounded by a cluster of microbiologists speaking in their tongue.

With such deep divisions between disciplines the idea of throwing money at a multi-disciplinary collaboration and expecting outcomes at the same pace as single discipline projects is optimistic. Yet it can be achieved.

Firstly, nothing brings ancient foes together like a common enemy. And, like so much of science, an unanswered communal problem is the best way to motivate the different disciplines to unite.

Secondly, science degrees need to place more emphasis on using a common tongue throughout science. Communicating complex ideas in a simple form is the future of science and will help bridge the great divides between disciplines, and even between scientists and other professions.

With a common enemy and effective communication, the new and improved armies of science can march forth for good of the world and achieve what no one has achieved before. I think there could be a movie about that.