Imagine a restaurant operated by just one person. They will be cooking, hosting your table, getting you the check, washing the dishes, doing everything. That would not be a very efficient system. Its potential for expanding and achieving more will remain constrained.
A few nights ago, we walked back to our Paris hotel through Rue de Seine, a narrow street across the Louvre famous for its art and antique galleries. As we peaked through the gallery windows, one sculpture caught my attention. To me, it evoked team work and it inspired me to write this week’s post.
As the metaphor of the single-person operated restaurant evokes, it goes without saying that a team can and should achieve more than individuals. This is particularly true in complex and specialized endeavors like scientific research. Teams that enable interdisciplinary collaborations and foster diversity are bound to deliver much more, not just by being more efficient but also by creating the ideal environment for that rare Aha moment that gives rise to major technical and conceptual breakthroughs. I am certain that my lab wouldn’t function as well if we weren’t operating as a TEAM. I often feel that my job as a the Group Leader is akin to a football manager (soccer coach in US parlance), making sure that the team is balanced, that everyone plays at the right position and that the sum is better than the individual parts. A team of 11 Lionel Messi or even of 5 Lionel Messi and 6 Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t be competitive.
This concept extends beyond a single lab. With my colleagues Mark Banfield, Ryohei Terauchi, Matt Moscou and Nick Talbot, we have put together the rather loose but effective BLASTOFF collective that focuses on the blast fungus Magnaporthe oryzae (or whatever else you prefer to call it.) Our activities include regular meetings that alternate between themed presentations and free-wheeling BLASTOFF-Lite meetings where anyone can update on something of interest to the group like new developments, technical breakthroughs, or troubleshooting discussions. Occasionally, we meet up with our Japanese counterparts as in this memorable April 2019 meeting in snowy Kitakami. I can think of many ideas and suggestions that came out of BLASTOFF meetings. Everyone benefits. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all boats. Just check how many papers and other outputs came out of the BLASTOFF network and its offshoots.
Human beings are social animals. We seek companionship, enjoy supporting each other and crave sharing experiences with our peers. This is the essence of our humanity. As I said, we spent the last few days in gregarious Paris, and this urge for social contact was in display in the terraces of the cafés and restaurants where despite the bitter cold people bonded over a drink or a meal, presumably releasing bursts of oxytocin and other feel-good stimulants. We also visited my old haunts at the Quartier Latin where I did my undergraduate studies. I was pleased to see students spending hours chatting with each other instead of staring at their smartphones, reinventing the world over a warm cup of coffee or a beer. I learned a lot in these cozy cafés. Not just by rehashing with my peers a cool lecture we just had, but also by arguing over the latest political scandal or reviewing recent movies. In this school of life, you learn to become a human being. A social human being.
This is one of the reasons why academia seems so cold to budding scientists. Many feel that the incentives of academic life don’t foster team work and the collaborative spirit that is central to our well-being. Take this recent thread by geneticist Harmit Malik who lamented on how some institutions and committees undervalue collaborative papers on the basis that if one single author was “deleted” it would have no effect on the published paper (*see also below). This persistent cynical attitude fosters the misguided view of academics as lone geniuses, and that even if they may occasionally collaborate, the work is driven by the brilliant few barking orders to a bunch of followers who certainly don’t deserve to be considered for the top jobs and accolades. This is a toxic view of scientific research. What we need is the exact opposite. The fact is if you can’t collaborate and don’t have any jointly authored papers with your colleagues, you’re unlikely to be a competitive biologist in 2021. Trust me, many committees have already endorsed this view.
To use another sport metaphor, academia tends to favor those who score the most goals not the assist kings. Personally, if I were a basketball player, I would rather lead in assists than in points scored. I always found it most fulfilling to create an environment and research culture that enable others to succeed. My dearest wish is that my lab serves as a springboard for other to kick-off their independent career. If that happens, then I would have achieved More, thanks to TEAM.
*P.S. The “gene deletion” test concept is misguided even from a genetics perspective as argued by Harmit. If you delete a gene and you don’t get any effect, it doesn’t mean that the gene is useless. Biological processes are based on complex networks with built in redundancies that enhance the robustness of the system. This is why we have two eyes and breath with our nose and mouth (otherwise, every respiratory infection will be lethal). More on this here and in a future post.