On the Importance of Conversations in Science

So why talk about science "conversations?" Because sometimes they don’t happen enough. They don’t happen for many reasons, but one is that they are work and everyone is "busy."They take time. They require effort. They require patience. Some PIs believe they are not effective or even necessary. After all, if you have great people in the lab, why not just let them sink or swim? People also sometimes feel that they ought to be spending their time doing experiments instead of talking about them. 

Pushing back all of this is the notion that the really great science often comes out of a conversation. It’s rare that a key experiment is one that appears out of a vacuum. Instead, it comes out of a conversation that pitches and critiques an idea. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of the back-and-forth and how impact the context of the conversation affects it. Some people thrive on a large group interaction, while others like a one-on-one format. Some people like formality while others don’t. Consequently, having variation in the context of conversation helps. Of course, people have to both talk and listen. I never assume I understand something better than someone in the lab. Every PI I know (myself included) sometimes think they have “the” answer to a problem and does his or her best to persuade members of the lab to take a particular approach, but sometimes listening leads to a different (and better) answer.

Along the same axis, is collaboration. Few individuals or laboratories have the breadth and depth to solve every problem on their own. As such collaborations are essential. Choosing collaborators is critical both in terms of finding expertise but also a match in culture (generosity vs. aggressiveness) and rigor. Conversations with collaborators are even more critical. Keeping those lines of communication open and moving is easier than in the past, but it still requires work and organization to keep everyone engaged and working together effectively and avoiding misunderstandings. While there are pitfalls, in the long run the rewards can be great.

So keep talking!