Before we begin, please let us introduce ourselves ...
Bo Huang: Before coming to the United States 2 years ago, I acquired my BS in chemistry at Peking University in China. I was already working as an undergraduate on a project that involved biology and physical chemistry. This exciting experience pushed me to continue interdisciplinary studies.
Thomas Perroud: After finishing my degree in chemical engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, I had the great opportunity to do my diploma (a 6-month research project) at Stanford University. The interdisciplinary environment I found in Richard Zare's research group there convinced me to pursue a PhD.
Our current research involves the study of a G-protein coupled receptor by single-molecule detection methods. In other words, we are using complex physical tools, such as spectroscopy, on a biological sample to answer chemical questions. When trying to answer such questions, the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration soon becomes apparent. Because our laboratory specializes in physical chemistry, we have neither the experience nor the instruments to produce this biological sample. All the biological work is done in the research group of Dr Brian Kobilka at the Stanford Medical Research Center. Well before we joined the lab, the collaboration was established.
At first glance, we think collaboration is always good. Why? Being a scientist is all about being curious. Thus, the thought of working with different people and learning new concepts and methods from an unfamiliar area of science is very exciting. As graduate students, we also need to learn how to find answers to a daunting challenge.
Because an interdisciplinary collaboration brings together people with different backgrounds, we can benefit from a bigger and more diverse set of solutions. For example, we needed to attach the receptor to a surface. As biophysical chemists, our approach consisted of modifying the surroundings of the receptor, a common but complex method used in the biophysical community. This method is appealing because it does not modify the biological system, which is unfamiliar to us. However, our collaborators offered to modify the receptor with an antigen and to demonstrate that it will not disturb the function of the receptor. So far, their approach remains the easiest and the only successful one.
Finally, having two advisers who know us well is bound to be an advantage when we start looking for postdoctoral positions or new fellowships. Unlike others, our "quest" for the second letter of recommendation for a new position will be easier.
Think Before You Leap
All of these advantages come at some cost. A successful collaboration is not easy, and you will face all kinds of challenges. First, the essential requirement for a productive collaboration is a balance of power. The nature of the relationship between the laboratories has to be symbiotic. We need our collaborators because we cannot prove the usefulness of our single-molecule techniques without their biological samples. On the other hand, they need us to answer questions that cannot be answered by their biological methods. The need to work hand in hand is fundamental.
Distance is also an important issue when collaborating with a different research group. In fact, our lab recently experienced an unsuccessful collaboration with a group in a leading research university located more than a thousand miles away. Basically, it was similar to the current arrangement that we have with Dr Kobilka's group--we had the physical methods and they had the biological sample. However, we ran into problems with the first shipment of the protein. The dry ice evaporated before the package arrived at our lab, and the sample could not be used. Additionally, interacting and communicating become more and more difficult with increasing distances, because people do not meet often. All of these problems can be overcome by good coordination, which is required wherever your collaborators are. Indeed, once the receptor has been expressed and purified in Dr Kobilka's lab across the street, our instrument must be ready because each batch of the receptor is active for only a few days.
It's a Different World
As mentioned above, interdisciplinary research involves scientists with diverse backgrounds. This knowledge gap is much larger than one can imagine; sometimes, it seems to be worlds apart. In fact, we often face what we consider to be extremely strange questions or critiques during our numerous meetings with our collaborators. But we recognize that our answers to their questions can sound rather odd to them, too. Additionally, what is important to us can be a detail for them and vice-versa. For example, what is meant by a "pure sample" is quite different when you're looking at a trillion receptors on an instrument, as our collaborators do, compared to when you're looking at a single receptor, as we do. What they define as "pure" might not be good enough to produce meaningful results on our sensitive instruments.
In an interdisciplinary collaboration, each person initially has a definite task to perform. But to have a good comprehension of the project, one must also be involved in the work of others, both theoretically and experimentally. Learning new concepts and methods in a new field is time consuming. Thus, we always keep in mind to what extent we want to involve ourselves in the biological part of our project. Indeed, the origin of the word "collaborate" means to work with, not for someone. Beyond that, it is important to trust the expertise of your collaborators in their fields.