Collaborations are the key to success in modern scientific research, says Michelle Ma.
Guest contributor Michelle Ma
In contemporary science, collaborative research is the norm. The majority of my work as a PhD student, a postdoc and most recently as a research fellow has involved collaboration with physicists, engineers, pharmacists, biologists and clinicians, from the fields of cancer diagnosis to dye-sensitised solar cells. Whilst I occasionally endure nostalgia on a bygone era where a single scientist or a solitary duo authored papers, today research happens in teams. This is perhaps a result of the current climate: innovative science that will provide public benefit needs a range of different skills.
I’m a research chemist and aim to develop new pharmaceuticals for diagnostic imaging. To show that these chemicals work, I need to undertake preclinical studies. And the best way to accomplish this is to collaborate. I synthesise new molecules, and then work with others to test them. If they have clinical utility, I need commercial collaborators to develop them so they meet pharmaceutical requirements, and I need clinical collaborators to take the compounds all the way into a clinic where they can help people. In short, if I want to make a difference, I can’t be a one-man-band.
So, at the end of my last fellowship, armed with five different compounds I’d spent the last eighteen months painstakingly synthesising, I flew to Melbourne, Australia and spent two months at the Peter MacCallum Centre, a public hospital dedicated to cancer care, research and education. Here, I worked alongside other chemists, biologists, pharmacists and clinicians to find how these compounds behave in biological systems. Their diverse range of expertise ensured that the experiments answered the right questions, and that we walked out of the lab with good, robust data.
For me, this collaboration provided much more than just a set of results. I developed a new understanding of biological characterisation of new compounds, and forged new professional relationships with scientists working in translational cancer research. The flip side of collaborating to obtain results is collaborating to make new research questions. We found fertile ground for formulating new research projects based on exciting chemistry to – hopefully – develop medicine further.
Earlier this year, when the time came to apply for promotion from research fellow to lecturer within my department, my collaborations became pivotal. On top of an aptitude for multidisciplinary research, I had a new research network to bring to the department. I put forward new ideas for translational research that addressed a clinical need. All of these aspects of collaborating addressed key criteria for a tenured lectureship position: publications, a research network and the capacity for innovation.
Collaborating has also helped me develop my communication skills – whether by chatting informally with scientists from different disciplines, or by presenting results to an audience of mixed expertise, clarity in communicating research is key to building constructive relationships. This skill can be translated to teaching, mentoring, and even simple everyday laboratory discussions. The very best scientists are often very effective communicators.
There are other advantages too: working in a team has made me more confident. To establish collaboration and outline my end of a research project, I needed to be assertive. For some people, this personality trait comes quite naturally, but it’s something I’ve had to cultivate over the years. Working in part of a group where I was forced to be assertive has paid off enormously.
The last terrific thing about collaboration is that it can be inclusive – students, professors and industry researchers can all be involved. The participation of PhD students and early career postdocs from different research institutes is often crucial to getting the work done. At all career stages, collaborating is a professionally rewarding and hands-on way to learn about cutting-edge science.
For me, collaborating has provided valuable scientific data whilst refining my approach to problem solving, and has gifted me with a research network that’s laid the foundations for further projects. In the modern research environment, collaborations are key to both professional and scientific development – mine have helped me get to where I am today.
Michelle Ma is a research chemist and Newton International and Marie Curie Fellow at King’s College London. She has recently been appointed to her first lectureship in imaging chemistry.
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