Collaborations are an important topic in science because they allow us to produce far-reaching science while still being experts in our small niches. Every scientist, regardless of their seniority, can understand the current funding situation, and with that they should appreciate the fact that collaborations are essentially required for both grants and publications. You can’t survive without them. Here is a great, comprehensive article on how to establish and maintain successful collaborations. Another ECR blogger, Daniel Mediati, also recently published a great article on why collaborations are so important. However, I would like to address a lesser-discussed topic about collaborations: why you should visit your collaborating lab.
I recently established a collaboration for my project and decided that I wanted to visit their lab. I thought the techniques they were using were very interesting and I really wanted to learn them myself. The problem: I only had one week to spend there, but I went for it anyways. The result: I’m extremely grateful for the experience, and I learned way more than I had anticipated. Here are a few tips that I learned while I was there.
- Immerse yourself in the work at all costs.
If you have only one week, you can survive working 14+ hour days for that one week. Why? You need to really understand the process of the experiments. I see my fellow grad students often struggle to explain, both in writing and presentation, the work of their collaborators. This lack of understanding is a huge problem because it is after all your research, you need to be able to communicate it. The best way to understand what your collaborators are doing is to actually do the experiments, but as we all know, this takes time. So put the time in. The experience of physically doing the experiments with them gives you the ability to really discuss the techniques in your writing and presentations. This level of understanding can be an asset if you are attempting to secure grant funding or even win a poster competition.
- Appreciate the amount of time it takes.
Appreciating the work goes hand-in-hand with this concept of immersing yourself. Many people grow frustrated with their collaborators because they don’t understand the amount of work their collaborator is actually putting in. If you are taking part in the experiments with them, putting in long days, then you have a better appreciation of what they are doing. This person is taking time out of his or her research to take 2nd, or less, authorship on yours, you should appreciate that.
- Learn more about a technique you didn’t originally intend to investigate.
In most cases, you’re collaborating because the other lab does things that you can’t do at your home institution, and you should definitely take advantage of that. If you have downtime, and you see someone doing a technique you know nothing about, or using an instrument that is foreign to you, simply ask and most people are willing to oblige. You could even anticipate these opportunities by reading the lab’s recent publications or checking out the facilities list on the institution’s website to see what interests you. Even if you don’t get to use the technique or equipment in the immediate, you gain a better understanding of the available technology, and maybe you can apply it to your future work.
- Network, network, network.
Doing the experiments aren’t the only advantage to visiting though, don’t forget to network while you’re there. As I have said before, collaborations are the life-force of modern science, and the people you meet in your collaborating lab may be the ones you call in favors to when you have your own lab. After all, you are collaborating with them for a good reason. Additionally, you are going to have to communicate continuously with these people and that’s a lot easier when you’ve become friends. It’s also nice to have dinner buddies for the next conference, or even connections for future careers. Establish friendships by taking time to ask them about their lives and their research during an incubation time, go to the pub for a few hours, or wherever it is that you like. Get to know everyone you possibly can.
- Find other resources at the institution.
During my visit I was at a mechanical engineering department, but I’m a cellular biologist, so it was a very different atmosphere. They had a few seminars posted that didn’t seem to be too far over my head, so I went to them. It’s not something I would go to at my home institution, but it was a good experience, and it helped kill an hour incubation time. I also had the chance to listen to speakers that I most likely would have never seen at my home institution. Other than seminars, there are plenty of activities you could take advantage of: tours, poster presentations, career fairs, festivals; you could benefit from anything that is happening while you’re there.
- Allow yourself to have some fun.
You may be in a city you’ve never had the chance to visit, so go see a little bit of it. I was visiting the East Coast, so I gave myself a few hours on my first day there to visit a national monument I had never seen before. If you’re in a smaller city, go to a unique restaurant or a museum. If you’re an active person, do some outdoor activity, like hiking or kayaking or biking that you wouldn’t normally partake in. I’m a runner, so I took full advantage of the beautiful running trail surrounding the campus whenever I could.
My main point is you should take advantage of every single second you have while visiting, especially if you’re constrained to a small amount of time. It’s an experience you likely won’t get to repeat, so you have to make the most of it. You never know what you will gain or learn, or who you will meet!
Featured Photo: “LEGO Ideas Research Institute.” The image belongs to the flickr account of BRICK 101 and is used under a Creative Commons CC license Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).
- Elisabeth Pain. (2016) Building Successful Collaborations. Science Blogs: Scientific Community.
- Daniel Mediati. (2017) Science is the name but collaboration is the game. PLoS Blogs: PLoS ECR Community.
- Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer. (2015) Effective Communication, Better Science. Scientific American: Guest Blog.