Science is built upon a system of peer-review and collaboration, and Universities are meant to be institutions of higher learning and knowledge exchange, yet you just don’t see Profs wandering into a colleague’s office to chat broadly about science and exchange knowledge. Instead, we nod to each other in the hallways, and when we do chat, it’s often to discuss administration, complain about how busy we are, or or chat with our own research group about a specialized area of research. We don’t very often do 'science communication’ with our very own colleagues.
Last week I had the honour of giving the Lubinsky Lecture at the University of Manitoba. This is organized by graduate students in the Department of Biological Sciences. It was a wonderful, whirlwind trip in which I delivered two talks, and had an itinerary full of scheduled meetings with grad students and Professors. On the return flight late on Friday, it dawned on me why the trip was SO enjoyable: I was able to spend a significant amount of time TALKING ABOUT SCIENCE, and that was a relatively rare occurrence for me! I had 30 minute sessions with various people, and that allowed just enough time to really dig below the surface and see where we had shared interests, and how we could learn from each other. We communicated about science and it was amazing (THANKS to everyone at U. Manitoba!).
One of the science buildings at the University of Manitoba
I learned some fascinating things! Margaret Docker shared her passion with lampreys (did you know there were over 40 species of these amazing animals in North America?); Jim Hare’s graduate students discussed how they were trying to understand the factors that might cause ground squirrels to relocate their nests; Dirk Weihrauch shared his passion with invertebrate physiology, and I learned how little we know about excretion in horseshoe crabs; a PhD student studying lichens shared knowledge about lichen growth rates (yes, they are slow); and I got to see some live tardigrades! (and the list goes on…)
There was one common element that ran through all of these discussions: passion. Everyone I talked to was so excited to discuss their area of expertise, their research progress, and future research directions and thirty minutes was never enough time. It always seemed that we were just getting to the interesting parts and then it was time for me to move on. Sharing and discussing what we love about our research is so beneficial: it puts a smile on our face, reminds us why we love our job so much, allows time for self-reflection, and forces us to clearly speak about what we do and thus improve science communication skills.
I was trying to think of the last time I sat down and just ‘talked science’ with another Academic who wasn’t directly linked to my research program, and I realized that this was often associated with some kind of special occasion such as job searches. When a search occurs, the candidates typically meet a bunch of people in a Department, and we talk about various ways our research interests are (or are not!) connected. It’s too bad we seem to need some kind of excuse to have casual and wide-ranging discussions about science. It’s just not part of our regular workday since we can so easily get caught up in being busy; we are working long hours and going to meetings; we are rushing around to get to lecture, finish a manuscript, or write a grant. We do not take enough time to pause and talk about science with our colleagues and grad students outside of our own research group. Yet the benefits of this kind of science communication are countless: interesting discussions with other scientists can lead to research collaborations, help us pick up new materials for lectures, let us re-think our own research areas, or just learn stuff for the sake of learning. Universities are supposed to be about learning, and I just don’t think the employees of Universities spend enough time doing exactly that.
I don’t know how this would work, but maybe we ought to think of ways to schedule in discussions with colleagues, including peers in our own department, many of whom may have offices just down the hall. Maybe we should find ways to meet our colleague’s graduate students without an agenda (i.e., outside of a grad seminar or committee meeting). We should pause and learn from them and learn about the systems they study, and why they study them. At the very least, we should probably just take just a little more time to ask other grad students and colleagues about their research; listen to their stories and feed off their passion, and spend 30 minutes at the coffee maker instead of 5 minutes, recognizing that those discussions will probably be quite beneficial in the long-term and well worth the time. Maybe when we do meet up, we ought to make a conscious effort to steer conversations towards science.
I just makes good sense: we're surrounding by interesting and amazing scientists so perhaps it’s a good idea for us chat about science a little more often! We shouldn't have to find an excuse to practice good science communication, and knowledge exchange, within our own institutions.