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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC’s and PhD’s: The remarkable benefits of comfortable collaboration
October 16, 2012 - 8:00pm

One of my best friends in grad school was also my best colleague. When we first met early in my first year of graduate school (her second), we were in different graduate programs, both of us attending a neurobiology class and we bonded on the bus ride to the medical school class three times a week.  I bombed the class - she aced it - but it was well worth my taking, since getting to know her was probably one of the single best things for my graduate career.  Why?  For some reason, I was always extremely comfortable around her. I never felt I was saying anything dumb (though I’m sure I did); on the contrary, with her I was smart, articulate, and could think quickly on my feet. (I wonder if this was true for her too?  I never asked.) We bounced thoughts off each other, delved into complex subjects together, brainstormed and ended up collaborating on several projects, which we published and presented at multiple meetings together. Eventually over the course of our graduate careers, which for both of us included unplanned but fortuitous advisor changes, we ended up in the same lab.

I’m not sure why our relationship was so comfortable. We had fairly different interests, different friends, we listened to different music, had very different clothing styles.  We did spend some time together outside of work, but we mainly interacted in our long hours in the lab.  Even there our world-view was different: I was more of a field biologist, she more a lab scientist. But intellectually, we clicked, and our different takes on things, rather than being antagonistic, gave each of us fodder for rich discussions. We “wasted” a lot of time together, playing Boggle in the lab lounge, taking breaks to the candy machine in the next building and long lunches over Mapo tofu from the Chinese food truck, gossiping about our lab mates and department colleagues. In reality, this time was highly productive, when we worked things out in an easy, casual, yet at the same time often intense, way. Though I’ve had many friends, and many scientist friends, I have rarely felt quite as productive and confident with anyone else. Since grad school we’ve gone separate ways, unfortunately, and don’t see each other much, but this friend has made a life-long impact on me and gave me a true sense of how stimulating the right collaboration can be.

The New York Times recently ran an article highlighting research into the “powerful influence that social factors can have on intelligence.” How often it is that social interactions in academia have a negative impact on people’s careers.  I remember choking, hemming and hawing, not being able to pull together a coherent thought in front of some of my peers and colleagues.  But what an effect a mutually comfortable relationship can have.  How do we get more people like these into our lives?



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