I’m currently spending six weeks working with my Swedish collaborator in her lab at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. Working at the university has been very different from working at the field station on Gotland, mainly because of the work environment. I loved working at the field station, but I only had a couple of other people there with me. Here, there are dozens of other graduate students, post-docs, and researchers who are doing similar projects. It means that I have a large group of people with whom I can discuss my research, learn about other peoples’ approaches, and generally have good discussions about science. Even though I have been spending most of my time in the lab, I’ve found the intellectual environment to be very stimulating and enjoyable.
One of the reasons I’ve been able to meet and interact with so many people is because the department here has many opportunities for people to interact. They have the typical departmental seminars, but they also have a weekly department lunch. To encourage people to come to the lunch, they have two incentives: one person bakes a cake for everyone to share each week (the cake-baking responsibility rotates through the department members) and there is a wine lottery, where people can choose numbers and win a bottle of wine if they’re lucky! These are fun, easy ways for the department to encourage everyone to show up and interact. These interactions are important for several reasons. First, it’s good for everyone in the department to be on good terms with each other and interact regularly. This in turn encourages collaboration, brainstorming, and has otherwise positive effects on the research being done. Additionally, it provides everyone with a structured time to take a break from research. It’s important to work hard but punctuate the work with socialization and relaxation (and cake!), otherwise the quality of the work can decline.
One of the other things I’ve noticed they have here, which we don’t have at Texas A&M, is large, accessible break/lunch rooms, where people gather at meal times and for coffee or tea. These rooms facilitate conversation and socialization. Having that space to run into people while making coffee or heating up your leftovers is a great way to organically spark conversations and interactions.
Having colleagues with similar research interests is really a nice and important aspect of being a scientist, and so far has been a great part of my experience here in Norway. It is easy to get caught up in your own research and live in isolation, but talking with colleagues can spark new ideas, challenge old assumptions, and help troubleshoot problems. Communication is a key part of science, after all, and it has been wonderful to see how organically interactions are built into the way of life for the biology department here in Trondheim. I hope to learn from their programs and maybe I can bring some of their socialization strategies to the department at Texas A&M and any future departments I may be a part of. Science cannot occur in isolation, after all!