Communication as a network problem
November 11, 2011 § 7 Comments
I recently gave a short talk to a group of post-docs who had organized their own mini-symposium and workshop as a way of bringing the Harvard post-doc community in systems biology together. Those of you who haven’t worked in the Boston area may be surprised that we need special events to bring together a community that is separated by only ~4 miles, but in fact the trip from Harvard’s main campus in Cambridge to Harvard Medical School in Boston is a frustrating and lengthy one. Much of the apparent distance is added by the need to cross the Charles River on one of its few narrow, highly trafficked bridges. I have often wished for a personal helicopter as I sit in the traffic jam at the BU Bridge. Hence the title of the occasion: “Across the River”.
Since this was an event focused on communicating and bridge-building (or at least, bridge-crossing) I talked about communication. Here’s my thesis: communication plays a much larger role in the progress of science than most people (and most scientists) are conscious of. So, one way to become a better scientist is to think more about how you communicate and try to do it better.
This is the point at which it becomes difficult to be talking to an audience you can’t see: some of you will be saying “sure, of course”, while others will be looking puzzled — science is about doing experiments, not about communication! If I could see you, I could adapt to your reactions. Since I can’t, I’ll say this to the “sure, of course” group: I think many of us have been persuaded to think about scientists as natural non-communicators, who live in an ivory tower and think deep thoughts and publish inscrutable, dense, leather-bound tomes that are then read by a tiny group of other eggheads. Actually the most prevalent image in the popular consciousness may be that of the gentleman scientist from the 18th or 19th century, dressed in tweed knickerbockers and stout shoes, scouring the rocks of a cliff face for fossils in proud isolation while smoking a pipe.
If scientists ever lived like this, we don’t now. Even the lonely fossil collector went home to write long letters to like-minded pipe-smokers across the world about the fascinating fossils he — or she, but that’s another, possibly pipe-free, story — had found. But this is not the way the world thinks about scientists, and so it is often not the way we think about ourselves. On top of that, we confuse communicating with the public — which, as a group, we are indeed very bad at — with communicating with ourselves, which we do constantly. The need for communication creeps up on you throughout your career: perhaps you don’t need to be talking and reading constantly as a graduate student, but by the time you make it to your first real job the need to be a good communicator pervades your daily life.
Let’s suppose that your first real job is as an Assistant Professor. You need to teach (all about communication, though one should not confuse communication with entertainment), inspire people to join your lab (yes, this is partly about having good ideas but it’s also about communicating those ideas effectively so that potential trainees will be excited about them), manage people well (a big part of this is communication) and know what’s going on outside your lab (you can get some of this by reading, but it works much better if you also have widespread friends who tell you what they’re finding exciting). You’re going to need to communicate your ideas and findings in talks, papers and grants, and — most importantly — you’re going to need colleagues who will take the time to listen to your ideas and make suggestions you haven’t thought of, or tell you if you’re talking nonsense. If you’ve spent the last ~10 years doing nothing but manipulate your pipetman instead of building strong communication ties with other researchers (by listening to their ideas, among other things), you could be at a serious disadvantage.
A recent paper in Molecular Cell‘s Forum section describes an experiment in this area which I think is interesting though not necessarily scaleable (Klein, A. and Lande-Diner, L. 2011. The Critical Discussion Group: Fostering Personal and Scientific Growth. Mol. Cell. 44 167-169 doi:10.1016/j.molcel.2011.10.002). Klein and Lande-Diner and several other post-docs noticed that they often got their most useful scientific input in situations where they were discussing an early-stage project in a relaxed setting, e.g. the coffee room. They suggest that one reason for this is that in these situations you have less investment in a project and are therefore less likely to focus on defending a prepared position. In a seminar (or even in group meeting) you are not just talking about science, you are also being judged, leading to a desire to tell a complete and unassailable story. So if the project you’re working on has a fundamental flaw of some kind (for example, it might be in the wrong quadrant of Uri Alon’s feasibility vs. interest diagram), it’s much more likely that you will allow yourself to recognize this if you talk about the project early on to people who will generously take the time to help you think it through. Having noticed this phenomenon, they set out to create a situation in which they could get this type of feedback systematically. A group of eight meets weekly for 90 minutes, with a flexible presentation schedule that allows this week’s topic to spill over into next week if necessary; to encourage a relaxed atmosphere (and, perhaps, attendance) there is food in the form of home-made cakes.
Key elements of the success of a group like this include personal chemistry, as well as a high level of trust that all the members of the group are on the same side: what happens in the Critical Discussion Group stays in the Critical Discussion Group, and everyone in the group understands that their goal is to help each other. So it isn’t clear to me that everyone can follow exactly this model (can you find 7 other people who are willing to make this commitment of time and intellectual energy? Can they cook?), but it’s still an interesting model to think about. Where do you, personally, get this kind of input? How can you get more of it? Whom do you trust enough to expose your wildest ideas to them? When someone tells you a wild idea, do you take the time to talk through the question of whether it’s genuinely interesting, or do you squash them immediately by telling them it’s too wild and will never work?
Whether the Critical Discussion Group model happens to work for you or not, it’s worth thinking about these issues and making a conscious effort to build these relationships. If you end up as faculty, and if you’re a systems biologist (which I assume many of you are), it’s highly likely that the Department you join will have few systems biology faculty. In fact the field is so young that many of you will be pioneers. Undoubtedly you’ll have some colleagues who understand what you’re trying to do — otherwise, you probably wouldn’t have been hired — but most likely you won’t have anyone who understands both the experiments and the theory/modeling and fully appreciates the interplay between them. Until other settlers arrive and set up neighboring homesteads, your best source of certain kinds of critical input is quite likely to be the people you get to know during your graduate and post-doc years. So — think now about who you want to have on your side in the future, and build those relationships now so that you can take them with you when you go.
Klein AM, & Lande-Diner L (2011). The critical discussion group: fostering personal and scientific growth. Molecular cell, 44 (2), 167-9 PMID: 22017864