Collaboration is becoming essential part of research in recent years, particularly around multi-disciplinary fields. It sounds easy to do collaboration as there are many researchers to collaborate in principle. However, in my personal view and experience, successful and good collaboration is rare and kind of luxury even in highly multi-disciplinary fields. After good amount of unsuccessful and rewarding collaboration experience, I made my own version of check-box list for collaboration:
1. Collaborators should have distinctive but complementary expertise in high professional standard
This is probably the most important. Collaboration is NOT trainer-trainee relationship, in which knowledge and technique only flows from one to another side (so strictly speaking, such internal training is not collaboration at all), but bi-directional crosstalk of different expertise. Collaborators should have distinctive but complementary expertise, so that they can make synergistic benefit when they put their head together. The core of collaboration is basically combination of different profession and blow a new wind by mixing things unlikely present in only one person. Also, each collaborator should possess high level of professionalism in each field. This is simple but very effective marker to identify good and rewarding collaboration opportunity.
2. Collaboration should start from idea not skill set of each party
It is very common that collaboration starts by looking for people or groups with certain skill set that lack in one party but in need. This is straightforward way, but very susceptible way of forming collaboration. In this case, early communication and collaborative discussion seem easy and quick, but it is very hard to keep momentum of collaboration in long run - as collaboration easily evolves into technical outsourcing without core shared value. Instead, collaboration should start from idea that would likely require integrative combination of different expertise to attack. Having shared goal in collaboration is essential to keep momentum and motivation in long term collaboration.
3. Make publication from collaboration
It is harsh to say, but it is reality that collaboration is not only about intellectual enjoyment but also about productive academic activity. Collaboration without clear publication perspective is extremely susceptible as it cannot give enough practical motivation to continue for each party. Hence, preparing and planning publication even in very early stage of collaboration is very important in practical regards.
4. Write grant for collaborative projects
Again this is practical consideration rather than idealized world story. Every research project consumes funding both for human resource and non-human resource. Particularly, collaboration projects typically require investment from each party not evenly divided, but rather very irregularly distribute in different stage of collaborative project. In practical viewpoint, these irregularities and unpredictable investment from each party on collaboration can easily strain relationship, and oftentimes serve as trigger to fail collaborations. Securing a dedicated funding source for collaboration projects greatly enhances flexibility and stability of collaborative relationship. Also, grant proposal itself is very nice opportunity to formalize the perspective and goal of collaboration compared to causal verbal discussions. Moreover, having research grant (typically in 3 ~ 5 years due) significantly increase motivation and dedication from each party to move forward on collaboration as the awarded grant basically acts as external enforcer of meaningful outcome from the collaboration.
When we spend more and more time in academia, it is common to find that so many grad students, postdocs, and even young faculties are obsessed with paper publication and chasing it as utmost goal. Surely say, I also thought in such manner when I started my grad study several years go. However, over time, I now see things very differently.
Long story to short, we should chase idea not paper. It didn't take long time to realize that paper is just a written embodiment of ideas, which is the soul and core of our entire business of research and intellectual endeavor. Also, authorships like first, contributing, and corresponding things are basically formalized gibberishes in this sense - what matters at the end of day is who proposed the idea and how that idea survives and contributes to the field. I now believe that researchers, particularly those who hope to remain in academia, should be trained and train themselves to become an idea proposal not a hard worker. It is very common scene that many students with good publications diminish into nowhere after their graduation - or shut off from their creative advisors or colleagues.
This is a grave challenge regarding the healthy academic environment. Funding sources and academic recognitions suppose to award ideas and accomplishments that benefit societies and expand the border of our knowledge - not publications or hard work (if somebody hopes to be awarded by hard work, there are many better-fit places such as construction site et al). Probably in the future, we should try harder to raise the next generation of thinkers and idea proposers rather than mindless hard workers who only chase papers. We should promote creative thinkings and out-of-box ideas, and actively de-promote hard workers without good spark of creativity even though with good publications. We should chase stars not shadow of them.
In one's research career before being independent as PI, it is usual to study within one field (or occasionally two). I was very lucky in a sense that I have entered several fields in relatively short period of time.
I started my research experience with bio inspired and biomimetic soft robots. Two years time I spent in this field was great enjoyment with couple of publications (interestingly, the paper I wrote during my undergraduate period in this field cited many times in major literatures!). Although the field of bioinspired and biomimetic soft robotics was greatly enjoyable, I changed my research area to soft material and mechanics when I started my master at MIT. Luckily, my transition to this very new field went fairly well, and I had joyful time with interesting topics and ideas around soft materials like hydrogels and elastomers. Thankfully, this new topic gave me handful of nice publications too.
While it was fine to stay in this field until PhD, I kind of made another venture toward 3D printing of advanced soft materials when I started my PhD. It took almost two years to fully setup and mastering the direct ink writing 3D printing setup as I needed to start from the scratch. However, it was kind of great bet for me to transit one more time. This new topic gave me opportunity to study and invent various interesting materials and ideas including 3D printable living, magneto-responsive, electronic, and biomimicking materials. This new venture already gifted me couple of publications, and generously giving me chance to get more and more papers.
Interestingly, more chance to divert into other fields came accidentally too. While I was discussing with my friend in neuroengineering field, I had chance to collaborate on brain probe. This seemed ludicrous and half-joke in the first stage as I really didn't have any experience or knowledge in neuroengineering or brain probes, and my friend was too for my fields. However, after several years, we made things through, and we may get a decent publication very soon. I learned a lot about the field of neuroengineering, brain probes, and bioelectronics during this interesting digression. Encouraged by this unexpected success in new exploration, I recently made another expedition to a new field - bioelectronics. This is kind of ongoing venture, but I luckily got multiple nice ideas to pursue. If I am lucky enough, I may get several major publications in this new field in coming year.
So, until I have less than a year before finishing my PhD, I have entered many fields starting from bioinspired and biomimetic soft robotics to bioelectronics. Remarkable thing is that all these seemingly different fields are closely connected and influencing me when I explore new ideas, sometimes providing me strength of convergence in multidisciplinary research. All these interesting fields in sum have given me tremendous enjoyment and excitement (and productivity as a result). What other new exciting new fields await me in the future?