Faculty Speed Dating

An upcoming event at the U. of Southern California encourages faculty to pitch ideas to each other quickly, hoping some chemistry will lead to a beautiful (research) relationship.

March 19, 2009

For all of their big ideas, sometimes faculty are a bit like wallflowers at a high school dance; they need a little push to make the first move. So it’s perhaps no surprise that the University of Southern California is using “speed dating” techniques to encourage professors to work together across disciplines.

Later this month, about 60 Southern California faculty will assemble at a long rectangular table, pitching research ideas to other faculty they may have never even met before. In the style of speed dating, faculty will move across the table in a round-robin fashion, taking just a few minutes to chat before moving on to talk to other faculty. After these brief sessions, organizers hope a special chemistry will develop between some of the participants, prompting the beginnings of a new research relationship.

Steven Goodman, who has helped organize the event, sounds a bit like the host of The Bachelor when he discusses the concept. A professor in the university’s dental school, Goodman says he’s cautiously optimistic that some sparks will fly.

“I think we all know that people will walk in with some crazy ideas; there will be those half snicker smiles,” says Goodman, co-chair of the university’s subcommittee on [research] collaboration. “But we also hope that we will bring two people together and it will be magic, because it never would have happened any other way.”

The “Research Collaboration Retreat,” as it has been billed, will focus on the subject of health care. Faculty from various disciplines across the university have indicated plans to attend, and there’s a financial as well as an intellectual incentive to do so. The university will provide seed money to the groups that are thought to have emerged from the retreat with the best ideas.

After the “speed dating sessions,” faculty will be encouraged to self-select into groups of four or more to begin the outlines of their research concept. The groups will then present their proposals on poster boards, which will be displayed throughout the room. Participants will then vote on their favorite proposals, but will not be allowed to select their own proposals. Those votes will be used to narrow down the groups with the most promising proposals, who will vie for a portion of $17,000 in seed money. The money will go to one or more of the proposals based on the review of a faculty panel.

The collaboration retreat is designed to be a “bottom-up” approach to fostering interdisciplinary research, Goodman said. Oftentimes, cross-discipline research is more or less mandated by administrators, as opposed to being born organically among faculty, he says.

“To be honest, if we get one or two collaborations that translate into grants, then the university will be happy,” Goodman says. “[But] if people get to meet people they’ve never met before, then I think we’ll be successful.”

The event admittedly has a “game show feel,” but it might begin to address some important questions, Goodman says. Universities are spending plenty of time and money building new buildings and restructuring colleges to stimulate interdisciplinary work, but the event will begin to explore whether one of the key obstacles is as simple as shyness.

“Are these really social barriers? We’ll find out,” Goodman says.

Shrikanth Narayanan, chair of the university’s research committee, says he believes developing social opportunities for faculty is an important step in encouraging them to work together. Narayanan should know a thing or two about cross discipline work: In addition to his appointment as a professor of electrical engineering, he’s also a professor of computer science, linguistics and psychology.

Sharing a cup of coffee won’t always lead to a big grant, but it can be a start, Narayanan says.

“Ninety percent of the time, nothing comes of it except they’ve had an interesting, engaging conversation,” he says. “But some of it works toward new ideas and breakthroughs, and wouldn’t that be cool?”


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