Tools For Successful Collaboration

Tools For Successful Collaboration

by Alan Saltiel  

Mary Sue Coleman Director of the Life Sciences Institute 

This issue of our newsletter highlights the necessary ingredients for creating successful collaborations. I call these the four "T's": Talent, Trust, Tools and Taking Part. Great science is always done by great scientists. I can't think of a group more talented along more dimensions than our current faculty group, including the 6 new LSI scientists announced on these pages. To a person, each of this new crowd has a track record of independent successful inquiry on significant problems, an outstanding training pedigree, boundless curiosity, and a disciplined work ethic. But what's most amazing about this group is the wide range of fields they represent. In fact, there is only one feature common to all of these scientists- their excitement about each other! I cannot overemphasize that it is not enough to simply assemble talent. Bringing talented scientists together across disciplinary lines requires trust.

Trust is difficult for almost everyone, but is an especially challenging proposition for scientists who, by nature, rely on seeing the primary data with their own eyes. After all, we're putting our projects -- our lifeblood! -- into each other's hands. We have to rely on our colleagues' knowledge of their fields and their ability to teach the rest of us what we need to know in order to collaborate successfully across our different perspectives. How do we develop trust? Slowly.

First, it requires a shared intense commitment and passion for science, one that is embodied in the way we work as scientists and people. We further develop it through every day interactions and conversations about topics both big and small; interactions made easier by great space, missing walls, varied disciplines, exceptional equipment, and most importantly, spirited minds. Through these interactions, we create the social capital that we can then invest in our collaborative science endeavors. In this era of big science, tools are more critical than ever. New equipment and computational methods capable of capturing and processing large data sets enables us to compare reactions system-wide. High throughput robotics speeds along our ability to develop information about small molecules. Almost as soon as a new methodology for inquiry is developed, it becomes a commonplace commodity needed to simply be "in the game." Our open laboratories are a key asset in our arsenal of tools. Indeed, they serve the same function as some of our most sophisticated technologies -- to link us together and to facilitate the sharing of data and insights. It is no accident that additional capital investments in equipment and facilities have been the #1 expense at LSI thus far. To get at the heart of LSI's mission, we have to deeply engage in the big questions in each other's disciplines.

Our annual scientific symposium is one great way to examine problems from a variety of perspectives. This year's gathering on cancer (featured in these pages) was a model of interdisciplinary exploration. But it is not enough to simply attend presentations or read papers in other fields. We have to develop ways to truly take part in each other's science, especially with the kind of experiments that none of could do on our own. Our collaboratories, like the Center for Structural Biology, are crossroads where scientists from different disciplines can work on their individual projects, but with tools, modes of inquiry and data from other's approaches. What better way to bridge the gulf between chemists, biologists, mathematicians, engineers, physicists, etc? It is at the boundaries of the disciplines that exciting synergies and the most startling new insights will emerge.

June 2005