What makes a great scientist? Part 4: collaboration

P5110278_edited.jpgScience is challenging, which means generally more can be achieved when working in teams. Different people have different skills, ideas, and approaches, so often, a team can solve problems which an individual working alone couldn’t. In fact, today, most publications, studies, and grant proposals involve multiple individuals and partnerships, in some cases reaching the thousands.

Collaboration can improve science, but also presents challenges. In addition to different skills and ideas, people have different personalities, different expectations and attitudes, and that means sometimes group work can be messy. Other times it can be great. For the last four weeks I have been visiting colleagues at the Instituto de Biologia Subtropical, in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. I had a chance to join them in a research trip to set camera traps in the just-declared El Impenetrable National Park in El Chaco region. There were many challenges, including unexpected rains, floods, mud, closed roads, and probably expected but nonetheless annoying, mosquitoes and ticks. Still the team of 10 people worked fabulously, the human interactions were great, revealing a team that has managed to deal with those different attitudes, skills, and personalities in the best possible way. Work got done, and we had fun.

However, collaboration is not always smooth, or easy, or even fun. I haven’t been involved in collaborations with huge groups, but I have been part of quite a few different teams in different parts of the world and I have experience some difficult interactions. I realize my own personality may not be easy to deal with sometimes – my postdoc supervisor Eloy Revilla used to say it is the stubborn red-headed in me, but there are some difficult people out there, for sure. The trick to do well in collaborations may be to figure out how to deal with all sorts of people. And dealing well with some people may mean to not collaborate with them. A first step is to figure out quickly which interactions are worth maintaining and which should be dropped. If it is toxic, let it go. If it is good, cherish it. Once you give it a go, it is key modulate your own reactions and to make yourself someone easy to deal with who can also cope well with challenges. But don’t be a push over, learn how to handle bullies or slackers (even the nicest people can bully and slack at times), to contribute without pulling the weight alone, and to how to encourage others to contribute in their best possible way. Importantly, keep in mind collaborations are with humans, have fun as a team, those wines over a camp fire and conversations about life help build relationships and trust, which are key elements in successful collaboration. [For more on how to collaborate].

I am leaving Argentina today, but I hope to come back again and to establish a long-term collaboration with the team here. I hope to enjoy the beauty of a prolific, fun collaboration. I hope productive and interesting work will come out of our interactions. When it does, I will make sure to write a blog entry about those findings. Stay tune.

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