If we look at history, the most impressive scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century have been born out of interdisciplinary collaborations between professors and researchers at institutions across the globe. The discovery of water on Mars, sequencing the human genome and creating a COVID vaccine in less than a year—all results of large collaborative efforts that fostered creativity and new ideas. Finding solutions to the hardest problems is only possible through collaboration and looking at them through many different lenses, different disciplines, different countries and different life experiences.
And while the pandemic negatively impacted academic research, many of us got creative with ways to continue our work, albeit potentially at a slower pace and in a different direction than we intended. For example, faced with a limited ability to collect data in my lab, I reached out to my theorist colleague at University of Edinburgh, whom I met at a conference in Greece, to see if he would be interested in running some simulations that mimic our experiments to help complete our project and make sense of some of our data. This conversation sparked a collaboration that has led to two offshoot projects, two high-impact publications and a new grant.
As the chair of the physics and biophysics department at the University of San Diego, working alongside professors outside my university has been a top priority of mine, and it has helped to advance my research and other researchers’ work. As background, our university research teams have no graduate students and our faculty teach five classes a year, which means the pace of research differs from that at R-1 institutions. But since 2009, I have published 56 papers—38 with undergraduate co-authors—and brought in nearly $5 million in research funding.
How did I do it? Collaboration. Here are some lessons that I’d like to share with other professors, especially those just starting out, about how to secure such collaborative research projects. It’s also never too early to start collaborating, so these lessons are equally relevant to graduate students and postdocs.
Understand that networking isn’t just for business school. People tend to stereotype professors—physicists in particular—as socially awkward, aloof and confined to their labs and offices. But research is becoming increasingly team-driven and interdisciplinary—from intercontinental projects with hundreds of people to grant-funded research centers with tens of faculty to teams of two or three faculty—in efforts to advance knowledge more quickly.
So how do you become involved in a collaboration? Get out there and meet people. Discuss your work with other researchers, introduce yourself and get to know about their work. The best ideas are often born out of casual conversations over a beer. Send emails to faculty members at other institutions whose work you admire and ask to meet virtually or in person to discuss their work, solicit advice or just introduce yourself. Join professional societies for your research field.
The goal is to form a network of colleagues in your field and related fields that you can turn to for collaborative research ideas, advice on troubleshooting a failed experiment, suggestions when it’s your turn to find a speaker for your seminar series or support when you need an external letter for your tenure file. Networking will allow for natural synergistic collaborations to arise when you have an idea or someone else in your network does.
Say yes. Try to be open to new ideas and new directions for your research—and have the confidence that your expertise can contribute to them. Many times, a professor from another university has approached me with an idea, far afield from my current funded research, and an interest to collaborate. My gut reaction has often been “That won’t work. I don’t have the expertise or resources to do that. No.” But I’ve learned that you should resist impostor syndrome and the fear of failing and try it. Say yes to a crazy idea.
Even if the project you begin to collaborate on doesn’t turn out to be successful, you will have formed a relationship (and maybe even a friendship) with a colleague whom you can continue to turn to for help, a listening ear or to bounce new ideas off. Such relationships will be invaluable as you move through your career.
Reach out to leaders in your field. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from established and renowned professors in your discipline. More often than not, they will be flattered by your admiration and interest in their work. And they will also most likely be happy to meet with you to discuss their work and yours and to offer advice on getting started in a new direction. What’s more, they have a much larger network and can connect you with other researchers in your field whom you were unaware of, which can broaden your network and spark collaborations.
Flex your newly sculpted Zoom muscles. We all spent the past year or so building our Zoom skills and becoming adept at virtual meetings and classes. You can often develop really strong collaborations with professors across several time zones and countries. So, if you are interested in collaborating with someone on the other side of the globe, just email them and ask if you can meet over Zoom to discuss your shared research interests. While many of us did this before the pandemic, with the normalization of Zoom, potential collaborators are much more willing to say yes. My most successful collaborations have actually been with researchers from several times zones away, and this success is almost entirely due to the monthly research meetings we hold over Zoom.
Take advantage of professional conferences to talk and listen. Most of us already attend professional conferences to present our work and to hear talks from others in their field. These are indeed important to do. But the most rewarding and valuable part of a large conference is the ability to meet face-to-face with other professors and researchers in your field who are typically time zones away and/or too busy to meet with you otherwise. While I urge you to attend conferences in person whenever they can be offered safely, even in a time when most conferences are virtual, you can email attendees you would like to talk to during the conference and ask to set up a Zoom conversation.
Before attending a conference, review the list of the attendees and presenters and reach out to any of them whom you would like to meet with. Maybe it is just to hear more about their work, to ask for their feedback on some of your work, to pitch a collaboration idea or just to chat about life at their institution. Regardless of the conversation topic, it is quite likely to result in a collaboration in future years that will advance your work and academic research as a whole.
Present and publish. The best way to form collaborations is to get your name out there. If you are invited to give a talk at another university or at a conference, say yes. Present your work and encourage your students to do the same.
And most important, publish your work. Publications are the currency of academe, and without a peer-reviewed paper trail demonstrating your expertise, you will face a bigger challenge convincing someone to collaborate with you. It’s also much more likely that you’ll be approached by someone to form a collaboration if they can actually read about your work and see how your expertise could contribute to theirs.
Now, more than ever, to recover from the wounds of the pandemic, you should seek out collaborations to reinvigorate your research, advance knowledge and reconnect. The struggles of the past 22 months have highlighted the power of collaborative research in academe to advance knowledge, train the next generation and break down disciplinary and geographical barriers. The silver lining of the pandemic is that the comfort we all now have with Zoom, along with the yearning to travel and interact with live humans, will probably ultimately enhance collaborative research efforts for years to come.
BioRae Robertson-Anderson is chair of and professor in the physics and biophysics department at the University of San Diego.