The Academic Scene

A few weeks ago, Ethan Zuckerman got wistful about collaboration:

Dave Winer's got a poignant thought over at Scripting News today: "Where is the Bronx Science for adults?" He explains that, as a kid, the best thing about attending the famous high school "was being in daily contact with really smart and creative people my own age." It's harder to find this in adulthood, he observes, even as a fellow at the Berkman Center, where Dave and I met four years ago.

I empathize with Dave - the experience of being surrounded by smart people working on the same kinds of problems is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have.

Ethan and Dave both draw an analogy between the sort of collaboration they're talking about and artistic and literary "scenes" in history, and even places like London during the birth of the Royal Society (as seen in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books, for example).

This is one of the things I miss most about my research group in grad school. I used to spend a good chunk of every day hanging out with some of the very brightest physicists in the world, and I don't think I've ever had as good a sense of physics as a whole as I did when I was there, and any major new development was hashed out either formally or informally over coffee in the computer room.

I've been thinking about Ethan's post a lot lately, for a couple of reasons:

You might think that working in academia would be a good approximation of the sort of thing he's talking about-- after all, I spend my days working with a wide variety of really smart people, all doing cutting-edge research in their various fields. It doesn't quite work out that way, though, just because the variety is too wide. For the most part, my colleagues even within the department do research in fields that are so widely separated that it's really hard to have productive conversations about research. (And forget about other departments-- I don't even begin to understand what most of my colleagues in the humanities do with their days.)

Every now and then, though, it happens, just a little bit. A week or two back, just after we started getting nice signals from the test source apparatus, I spent an hour or so talking about the signals and how to interpret them with a colleague in the department who also has an AMO physics background. I explained what I was seeing, and suggested some possible interpretations, and he agreed with some of what I was saying, and pointed out a couple of things I had overlooked, and by the end of the conversation, I had a better idea of what was going on, as well as some ideas for three or four new experiments to try with the apparatus.

It also reminded me of just how much fun this business can be, when you've got smart people working on similar problems. It's been a while since I had that kind of interaction-- my students are great, but it's not the same.

And that feeds into the other reason I have for thinking about this stuff these days: we're currently reviewing folders for our tenure-track job search (something like 240 of them). When we put in the ad, we didn't specifiy a research area, and thus we've ended up with applications from all sorts of different physicists and astronomers, working in all sorts of research areas from the very applied to the incredibly abstract.

Given such a diverse candidate pool, it's really hard to decide on what we're looking for. On the one hand, it would be good to get somebody in a field that isn't currently represented in the department. Someone with a background in condensed matter or solid state physics, for example, could teach classes that none of the permanent faculty are really comfortable with, and give our students some exposure to a wider range of physics than they would otherwise see.

On the other hand, though, we could look at hiring somebody who does research that's similar to work done by somebody who's already here. This might not seem as beneficial for the students, but it could be a real boon for the faculty, providing mutually supporting research programs, and the sort of synergy of collaboration that Dave and Ethan were talking about. That can indirectly be of great benefit to the students, who make up for the loss of breadth with an increase in the depth of their understanding of one area of physics.

It's a tough call to make. Especially since there are a few strong candidates in the pool who do work very similar to things that I have done in the past. I look at their folders, and I can't help thinking about how much fun it could be to have somebody to collaborate with on a regular basis...

Of course, I'm sure my colleagues are all thinking the same thing, which means that sorting this whole business out is going to be a long and difficult process...


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As a post-doc, who might be running a (psychology) lab in a few years, I've been thinking occasionally recently about how to get a really engaging collaborative environment for faculty, students, etc. That experience you had as a grad student, hanging out and talking physics (or whatever) over coffee, is I think pretty rare in academic. I haven't seen it since I left grad school several years ago, and even then I only saw it in some labs, not others. The PI of a lab has a lot to do with how people chat about science and collaborate, and I think that's underappreciated. My current lab (which I do not run) has unified lab meetings weekly with several other labs, one in the same field and several in a very different subfield of psychology. People give talks about what they're working on, which is valuable and interesting, but there's very little just hanging out and chatting about stuff you've read recently. How would one, as a professor, set up an environment where people are encouraged to have that sort of energizing collaborative discussion on a regular basis? Official lab lunches? Regular lab happy hours? Reading groups in addition to presentations? Computer-based collaboration tools (mailing lists, wikis, central bibliography databases)?

ps - Chad, you've got an HTML bug...

Vicki Greene, the prof who's been teaching the upper division quantum mechanics course here, has for the last three years had a "quantum party" somewhere near the end of the first semester. This is a chance for students and professors to get together and talk about Bell's Inequality, the measurement problem, and all that sort of fun stuff that made undergraduate physics so stimulating.

This isn't really talking about cutting-edge research, but it is talking about fundamental physics in a way that we don't tend to do very often.


I too have had laments like Ethan's. I went to a science oriented school of Bronx's caliber, and not in college nor even grad school (!) was I ever immersed in scientific conversations with as many creative, intelligent people.

By Ambitwistor (not verified) on 12 Dec 2006 #permalink

How would one, as a professor, set up an environment where people are encouraged to have that sort of energizing collaborative discussion on a regular basis? Official lab lunches? Regular lab happy hours? Reading groups in addition to presentations? Computer-based collaboration tools (mailing lists, wikis, central bibliography databases)?

It's a tough question, and I don't know that there's a good answer.

In grad school, it was mostly a matter of group culture-- well before I got there, there was an established tradition of people hanging out in the computer room, and going to lunch in a big group, and I'm told that they still go to lunch en masse, even though the group has only gotten bigger over the years. The "Central Committee" is a fairly sociable group of people, and that spreads to the whole group.

There were occasional attempts to get a journal club going, or to have group meetings to discuss other results, but most of them sort of petered out after a month or so. The one regular meeting that did become insitutionalized came about because it was a meeting with another group in a different building, and a lot of interesting discussions went on there. For the most part, though, it was just something that happened.

I think it's in the best interest of the students and the professors to hire someone in a research field that overlaps with the current faculty. I'm in a lab with two advisors who collaborate closely. They were postdocs together and (somehow) managed to get hired nearly simultaneously. The interaction they have with each other benefits themselves and the group of grad students they collectively manage. They debate and challange each other about a plot or a paper all the time. Someone is always in the lab to answer grad student questions. We all use the same computer setup so there is less overhead. It's great.

There are some very positive aspects to hiring a new prof. Consolidating lab research resources would reduce overhead. Consolidating department resources into a more focused research effort leads to more research being done with undergrads as major contributors. Stronger research experiences in fewer research fields will undoubtably improve undergrad education at Union. Would a condensed matter course really improve things? I know that the course would come with broader research opportunites. There is more overhead associated with those opportunities.

An extreme example that comes to mind is hiring a physicist backed by a large collaboration. The collaboration takes data even if his teaching responsibilities overwhelm him that week. The collaboration provides him with contacts that know the current state of the art and how it relates to his setup. Etc, Etc.

By J. Slaunwhite (not verified) on 12 Dec 2006 #permalink