How to get scientists to talk to each other

DSC01359How often have you been at a small meeting and only found out on the last day how charming and interesting someone was? You meant to talk to them earlier, but somehow the moment never arose. There was a formal introduction on the first day, but that didn’t suffice. Of course, you might have researched your colleagues more thoroughly and taken the initiative, but we don’t always do that.

The team at Know Innovation are expert at getting people to talk to each other, so they discover shared interests and innovate. So I wondered if we could use that technique here at KITP, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics that is hosting a 7-week program in Cooperation and the evolution of multicellularity. Every week different people arrive, learn where the coffee is, that you should get to tea early, and that the blackboards at the end of the hall are good for equations.

Our leaders, Greg Huber and Cassandra Extavour.

Our leaders, Greg Huber and Cassandra Extavour.

For introductions, this week we tried a technique that I think would have made Andy Burnett of KI proud. After the briefest of around the room introductions, we asked the participants to write down the answers to four questions. I’m sure we could have arrived at better questions with more time and application of the creativity techniques of listing exhaustively before judging. But getting things done is also a goal.

The questions were:
1. What do you know about multicellularity that others here might not realize?
2. What tool do you wish you had to solve some specific question about multicellularity and what is that question?
3. What in your own research is a result you are most proud of?
4. What do you want to learn here at KITP?DSC01364DSC01378

We had different colors of sticky paper and white boards with the questions on them. We asked everyone to simply write the answers to the questions on their papers. After a minute or so of confusion, they did just that. We gave them about five minutes, then started collecting finished sticky notes and posting them. Soon enough everyone finished and put their notes on the right boards.

We then asked them to form groups in front of the boards and to divide themselves up among them. At first there was a general huddle in front as people read the sticky notes. There was silence. It continued for a couple of minutes, making me fear that the whole idea was not going to work. But then they started talking, first slowly, then vigorously. We encouraged them to move ideas around on the sheets to group them together. Some people actually did this, especially with the first two questions, but it was not a hit.DSC01370

By now the discussion was vigorous, engaged. A physicist came up to me and asked me what biologists wanted from them. Did we want a general, perhaps meaningless model, or a specific one with 30 or so variables that fit a situation but was entirely untestable? Hmm. I suppose we want something that is testable. We want something that indicates some knowledge of biology. We certainly want physicists that ask this very question.

We called for the groups to break and rejoin in different configurations, and there was some movement. I stepped back and watched. Everyone seemed involved, whereas when there was a full group discussion the younger people mostly stayed silent. I think it was a great way to start the week.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in New ideas, Presentations and seminars, Scientific meetings, Social interactions and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How to get scientists to talk to each other

  1. Nancy Dudek says:

    How much time should a coordinator/manager budget for this type of activity? What is a good group size? I would like to try this activity!

  2. This sort of interaction can take any amount of time. If you are using it to introduce people, it can fit into an hour or so. If you are using it to solve big problems, groups may form and reform around boards of questions over days. It is an extremely effective technique for getting a lot of ideas out there.

  3. If you do this for sorting among ideas a key feature is to separate generating and brainstorming from judging the ideas. Get everything up on the board, no matter how crazy before you start deciding what makes sense.

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