The second session of the Heriot-Watt crucible was to be held at two venues across the two days. I couldn’t make it to day one at The School of Textiles and Design in Galashiels due to a lack of a sensible way to get there and back to Newcastle in a day by public transport. Day two was held at the Moredun Institute. The Moredun is well hidden in the middle of a science park south of Edinburgh, just down the road from the lovely new Vet School.
The institute was set up to study and develop strategies for the control and eradication of endemic diseases in ruminants. I hadn’t heard of it until the beginning of the Crucible, when I met a researcher from the instute, who specialised in understanding sheep scab. Moredun is run by a charitable foundation with membership of about half of the sheep farmers in the UK, and it does as much education and outreach as primary research. We were introduced to the research portfolio of the director, and I was impressed to learn that they have one of the best collections of animal pathogens in the world and their labs are ISO9001 accredited. I learnt that chlamydia is endemic in the UK sheep population and vets have to be especially careful around sheep if they are pregnant due to the risk to their child.
After the introduction, the session began with a collaboration wall exercise. The idea with this exercise is to put your scientific questions, interests and skills onto post-it notes and stick them to a big board before grouping them into themes and potential seeds for collaborations. I am under the impression that this is a common tool for starting conversations and seeding ideas at this style of events and is used in EPSRC Sand Pits. Unfortunately, the facilitation was not well focused, while we made a good stab at the first part of the exercise, the grouping and discussions were not facilitated and the whole session fell flat.
We broke off for a few anecdote-laden talks from established professors giving their views on collaborative science. A chemist gave an interesting perspective of the traditional reluctance of people in his field to collaborative science and closed with a reiteration of what has become a common theme in talks on the subject of collaboration, namely Wheaton’s Law. For successful collaborations, be the person you want to work with and seek people you can get on with.
Lunch was served in a library stocked with infectious disease journals and just before the buffet tables there was a food cart/display highlighting the food borne pathogens you might find in your lunch. It takes more than that to put a microbiologist off his lunch though!
The afternoon session focused on a really interesting take on speed dating. Taking the three minute chat concept from speed dating, the idea was to use that time find out where the person opposite you was coming from in terms of their research focus and outlook. At the end of the three minutes we were instructed to write one word about our ‘date’ on a post-it note and hand it to the facilitator. Cycling around something like thirty people, over the course of ninety minutes, was an intense experience and it draining having to come up with interesting and insightful bursts of conversation. I wouldn’t want to go to an actual speed dating event. I came away with the feeling that it is relatively easy to find common ground with people in a wide-range of disciplines and a pile of seemingly random words written on post-its. This was a great exercise for confidence building and it was definitely a way of honing the skills needed for approaching people at conferences. Again, the follow-through exercise was forgotten, we handed in our post-its and nothing, no discussion of the words we chose to describe our ‘dates’ and the whole exercise seemed to fall flat on that lack of facilitation.
As far as I understand, one of the driving ideas behind these Crucible events is to facilitate the development of collaborations and networks between researchers from different fields. This session showed some promise and was clearly building on the previous sessions, but it fell short because the facilitation lacked focus and there was no follow up from the exercises. This success of this kind of networking event relies on the engagement of the participants and the skill of the facilitators in encouraging and directing that engagement. The participants were certainly willing, but the facilitation and organisation was weak. Hopefully this was a blip and the session this week will help us build on the common ground we have found and form some new networks of intersecting interests/skills.