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Science is the name but collaboration is the game

The growing need for collaboration among young scientists is more essential now than ever before, with careers in research becoming more uncertain and perilous.

In unfamiliar surroundings on the opposite side of the world, one could be forgiven for feeling a little apprehensive. Standing at the entrance of the world-leading Li Ka Shing Center at Stanford University, a sense of intimidation overwhelmed me. I found it incredibly daunting to enter where so many laureates and scholars, such as Andrew Fire and Thomas Südhof, have famously studied or worked.

Inside, our seats were organized in a circle as we each introduced ourselves. As the introductions circled, it dawned on me that what I had long considered to be the home of innovation, excellence and eminence was now my home, albeit temporarily. Each of us in this intimate circle had been selected for the SPARK international bioinnovation and entrepreneurship course in translational research. Within this small room was an exciting and rich diversity of scientists covering extensive fields of research, from almost every continent of the globe. This was extremely reassuring. My ultimate objective at Stanford was not only to better understand bioinnovation, but to learn from, work with, develop and foster collaborative partnerships with scientists across multiple disciplines of research. Actively implementing this global collaborative frame of mind was tough, however I can honestly say with the highest zest, it has been one of the most career-rewarding experiences. As always, there were lessons to be learned and I sure had my fair share of these experiences, all of which opened my eyes as an early career researcher (ECR), and I hope my story does the same for others.

Step outside the comfort zone
Collaborating with others was something I hadn’t actively sought out during my short research career as a PhD candidate. It may be a natural tendency for ECRs to seek the comfort and familiarity of working with their own team or group. This creates routine and fluency, both of which can be important for a successful career. But the desire to step away from this refuge, interrupt this cycle and breakaway from the comfort zone to engage and collaborate with other like-minded scientists is one worth pursuing. It’s important to always look beyond the familiarity of your PhD to understand and define your future path in science.

ECRs must collaborate
Researchers that are just starting out constantly fear the pressure of scarce funding and employment insecurity. This aspect of career uncertainty has been the focus of much debate and will continue to dominate scientific discussions in the future. Researchers know how costly, complex, uncertain and perilous a career in scientific research can be, with no defined direction that will suit everyone. Cooperation and collaboration are paramount to maintain a consistent pace of scientific discovery. Whether your research goal is to alleviate antibiotic resistance or control the quantum properties of small metallic nanostructures, ECRs share the common goal of advancing their field through new research. All scientists encounter many obstacles that can only be tackled by teamwork and the interdependence of different skill sets.

As with all things, there are challenges and setbacks
But collaboration isn’t always easy. I cannot pretend that actively probing for collaborative opportunities across fields and disciplines, and merging skill sets with different researchers is always comfortable. Collaboration presents many challenges, such as contribution pressures, cultural differences and even personality clashes.

Collaboration requires constant hard work and maintenance between all team members. At Stanford I learned that establishing camaraderie with the team first, away from scientific work, facilitated better team interaction and communication when it came down to research, as there was less anxiety around contributing suggestions and input from members. This always created a relaxed, yet more efficient environment, and I formed strong connections as a result.

Reaping the many benefits of collaborative research
Collaboration helps ECRs develop into prosperous scientists, by presenting networking opportunities and exposure to new views and perceptions. These factors help an ECR all of which strengthen maturity as a researcher during these early years. In fact, a recent paper in Science Advances finds that multinational collaborative publications achieve higher impact and an overall greater citation rate than publications without a multinational collaborative mindset. As ECRs we should actively implement this overlooked and often-forgotten collaborative demeanor throughout our day. My experience has helped me make countless new connections during the international SPARK course at Stanford and in Sydney. In fact, one of these collaborators became my mentor, a relationship I will always value. I have no doubt the new relations we form as ECRs when adopting this collaborative frame of mind will lead to many profitable ideas and fruitful alliances in the future, and knowing that we can face complex research questions together as a team is very exciting.

Featured image is in the public domain.

References List
Eastlack, S. (2017) How Scarce Funding Shapes Young Scientists. PLoS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.

Fiske, P. (2009) Opportunities: Career Advantages of Collaboration. Science Careers.

Hsiehchen, D., Espinoza, M., Hsieh, A. (2015) Multinational Teams and Diseconomies of Scale in Collaborative Research. Science Advances. Vol. 1(8), e1500211.

Jones, S. L., Myers, S. L., Biordi, D. L., Shepherd, J. B. (1998) Advantages and disadvantages of collaborative research: a university and behavioral health care provider’s experience. Arch Psychiatr Nurs 12(5):241-246.

Lamberts, J. (2013) Two Heads are Better Than One: The Importance of Collaboration in Research. The Huffington Post.

Mochly-Rosen, D., Grimes, K. (2014) A Practical Guide to Drug Development in Academia: The SPARK Approach. Springer Publishing.

WHO Global Report on Surveillance of Antibiotic Resistance. 2014.

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