Monday, February 2, 2015

Humanane Letters and Good Talk: Building Community in a Research Lab

Over at 3 Quarks Daily Jalees Rehman has an interesting post about research life in the life sciences: Literature and Philosophy in the Laboratory Meeting. He identifies a problem:
Over the years, I have noticed that the increasing complexity of the molecular and cellular signaling pathways and the technologies we employ makes it easy to forget the "big picture" of why we are even conducting the experiments. [...] When asked to explain the purpose or goals of our research, we have become so used to directing a laser pointer onto a slide of a cellular model that it becomes challenging to explain the nature of our work without visual aids.
Visual aids = PowerPoint. So:
This fall, I introduced a new component into our weekly lab meetings. After our usual round-up of new experimental data and progress, I suggested that each week one lab member should give a brief 15 minute overview about a book they had recently finished or were still reading. The overview was meant to be a "teaser" without spoilers, explaining why they had started reading the book, what they liked about it, and whether they would recommend it to others. One major condition was to speak about the book without any Powerpoint slides! But there weren't any major restrictions when it came to the book; it could be fiction or non-fiction and published in any language of the world (but ideally also available in an English translation). If lab members were interested and wanted to talk more about the book, then we would continue to discuss it, otherwise we would disband and return to our usual work. If nobody in my lab wanted to talk about a book then I would give an impromptu mini-talk (without Powerpoint) about a topic relating to the philosophy or culture of science.
He then briefly indicates some of the books and philosophical topics they've discussed.

I commented by saying a bit about my experience getting my Ph. D. at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

* * * * *

I got my degree in the English Department at SUNY Buffalo back in the mid-1970s. But I got the core of my education with David G. Hays in the Linguistics Department. Hays was a computational linguistic, one of the pioneers who'd worked on machine translation back in the 1950s and 1960s. He'd led the effort at the RAND Corporation and then founded the Linguistics Department at SUNY Buffalo.

I was interested in semantics and he had a line of investigation that was of great interest to me. So I joined his research group and met with them regularly for several years. Hays didn't have a physical laboratory, not even a room with a computer. And the research group was mostly students who were working with him in some capacity. Some were doing dissertations under his supervision, others were taking a course with him, some where just interested in this or that, which also interested in Hays.

He held meetings at his house, generally in the morning or afternoon. During the formal part of the meeting everyone got to put one item on the agenda. The item could be anything, but was generally from current work. The meeting then went through each item in order, though I forget what the ordering principle was. But, it sometimes happened that we were unable to complete the disucssion of the last iterm, or even that some item or items didn't get dicussed at all. In that case, those items were first on the list for the next meeting.

Depending on just when the formal meeting took place, we shared a communal meal, and everyone was expected to take part in preparing that meal and in cleaning up afterward. If the formal meeting was in the morning, then the meal was lunch. If the formal meeting was in the afternoon, then the meal was dinner.

There were no formal requirements for discussion during meal preparation, eating, and clean-up. And I have no specific memories of any of those discussions. I would imagine that some times the discussion would cover things from the formal meeting but that anything and everything was fair games. Hays was quite insistent on the importance of this communal meal.

It seems to me that the philosophical and literary portion of your meeting serves a similar function, whatever that is, to that which the communal meal served for Hays. I note also that Hays himself was something of a polymath with a wide range of interests and he encouraged such tendencies in his students.

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