The power of random talks{85}

Friday was the first time that I personally attended a speech given by a Nobel laureate. Dr. Steven Chu’s message was thought-provoking in many ways. Coming from a solid scientist background and later served in the political administration, he has both the passion to advocate state-of-art scientific research and a balanced inclusion of the perspective as a well-informed politician. There are many takeaways from his speech. Among which, one particular concept I found very interesting and empathized strongly is his sharing of their daily lunch time scientific meetings at Bell Lab. Related to the same concept is the story of the café culture in Bio-X in Stanford. The key idea behind the less formal and hence less restrictive communication setting is to encourage knowledge spillover across different but related disciplines.

Before starting my graduate school, my expectation of the life of a typical Ph.D. student was probably among the most socially exclusive category. It is a widely accepted perception that the graduate student body is not considered as actively involved in extra-curricular activities as the undergraduates. Comparing to people employed in the non-academic occupations, the interactive and social elements are thought to be peripheral to one’s success in graduate school.  My advisor and a few close lab mates and the technicians are probably going to be the people I will need to handle throughout the next four or five years. I was mentally preparing myself for that kind of a solitary lifestyle at the very beginning of graduate school application.

To my surprise, the reality was not quite close to my expectation. Although my masters was a research-based course, I did not end up with burying myself in the lab all the time. In the classes we were required to take, there was always a good diversity of the students from a different background. In more than one classes, the professors would spend some time every class to ask the students to share some of the latest news and discoveries in a related field or could even be out of pure interest. The program overall and the faculty also had the underlying values to connect us the students to new ideas and resources. At Virginia Tech, I also felt strongly that some of most enlightening moments I had in the past one month are not in formal classes but rather through attending various seminars, workshops and just talking to people with interesting ideas.

It is a noted trend that science and research today are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. Research by Ben Jones, a professor at Northwestern University, showed that levels of teamwork have increased in more than 955 of scientific subfields and the average team size has increased by 20% each decade. It is used to be that the most cited work was the product of a single genius, like Einstein or Darwin, but now it is shown that papers with multiple authors are twice more likely to be cited by those by individual authors. As the research in each field becomes more specialized while the nature of the problems are becoming more complex, collaboration and discussion across disciplines to search for interdisciplinary solutions are becoming irreplaceable.

Before going to M.I.T. for my masters’ degree, I have heard of the famous “magical incubator” Building 20 which was regarded as the center of groundbreaking research at M.I.T. A little research on the history of this magical building reveals some essential ingredients behind the huge success. Before being known as the flagship research center, Building 20 started as a temporary structure and then evolved to host scientists from an array of domains due to extreme limitations of spaces after WW II. However, it is also because of the concoction that it sparked the creativity of each and every individual in the buildings, tearing down the walls between that hinders synergistic intellectual exchange. When high quality people are given the right time and space, even seemingly errant conservations will make sense and bring in surprises.