A great example of collaboration – seen through a microscope

Microscopes have always fascinated me since I used my fathers own toy microscope as a child to look at whatever I could find in our garden or around the house. Then I would have just never imagined that they would be able to move atoms. Fast forward 30 odd years..

One of my interests is ‘collaboration in science’ but what is often understated or just  forgotten is that special element (or someone) that makes collaboration happen smoothly or just gets the project off the ground so that it can spread it’s wings and fly under its own power! You do not see the names of these people in newspaper articles or press releases but occasionally you hear about what they have done and how they achieved it against all the odds. So I was alerted to this one particular collaboration on Olympicene in a blog by Antony Williams. After re-reading Tony’s blog it is apparent that one having an idea is just the start..it sets in motion years of work. Tony has played an important part in getting this off the ground and its pretty clear the folks in the lab have put years of effort that are reported as a spectacular image around the world. But lets not forget that in the miniscule soundbite that is the modern reporting of science, underneath it are real stories of human courage and tenacity. In science I have seen that the idea is just a start of the incredible journey and if you are lucky it results in a product, a paper or some discovery. Being able to connect to the right people to get the work going is an achievement I do not think should be downplayed. When we talk so frequently of being networked and of using social media to make connections, when it comes down to science, it is very often the people you already know that you will go to when you need something done. That seems to be part of the case here in that the scientists connected with colleagues or colleagues of collaborators. I think its a really great example of a very important discovery coming from a great idea and a collaboration that spans countries. In times when chemistry gets the short end of the funding stick I think its also represents a marvelous  academia (University of Warwick) : industry (IBM) collaboration fueled by the collaborative spirit of the RSC and one ChemConnector. Perhaps more importantly, what might come out of this is a model for how we can seed further such collaborations that make big discoveries (idea + facilitator +collaborator network = discoveries). So while some may see this as science without an application (i.e. not directly health or commercial related) based on the short press snippets, when the full papers eventually publish I hope we will see this as a turning point in moving atoms by microscope.

If nothing else comes out of this, we should put examples of science like this under the microscope to study more closely what makes them work.


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  1. Antony Williams says:

    Thanks for the kind words Sean! What is amazing here is the successful project that came out of so few people actually meeting face to face. I can honestly say that it is possible to develop so much respect for people that you happen to interact with just via emails. it is how they respond, whether there words are put into action and whether or not they give of their best. I was privileged to be a very small cog in the gearing system that ran onto this project. It was great fun!

  2. Bryan Sanctuary says:

    Meeting collaborators needs common goals, interest and, too, money. True there are long-time colleagues one turns to, (I even go back to my research director, even though grad school was years ago, there is always that bond), but most collaborators I find at meetings.

    The old Cultural Revolution title of “comrade” has negative connotations today, even in China. But the word “comrade” is a poor translation from Chinese 同志 “tongshi”, which literally translates appropriately, in my view, to “common aspirations” which I like a lot better than “comrade”. That is what one needs for collaboration: common aspirations.

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