Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Perspective: Speed Networking for Scientists

(Amelia Panico for Weill Cornell Medical College)

Finding new research partners can be a challenge for basic scientists and clinical researchers, as it may require them to step outside of their daily commitments. But it's important: Meeting scientists from other disciplines can spark a new research idea or open the door to a solution to a problem that has seemed intractable.

"It was kind of fun, it was kind of light. It wasn't a Gordon Conference. ... It was just, 'Let's see if we can make a connection and then take it further if we need to.' " --Brian Kelly

The Weill Cornell Medical College Clinical and Translational Science Center (CTSC), headed by Julianne Imperato-McGinley, took a novel approach to overcoming the challenge of forming scientific relationships: We organized a "speed networking" event that brought together researchers from CTSC's institutions--Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the Hospital for Special Surgery, Hunter College, and Cornell University--and from three New York-area community hospitals.

Our so-called Translational Research Bazaar, which took place in October, used a format popularized by speed dating: Two groups of people--in this case, basic scientists and clinical/translational researchers--sit on opposite sides of a table and chat for a few minutes until a bell rings, signaling that it's time to move on and strike up a new conversation. This process continues until everyone in one group has met everyone in the other group. The goal, for translational research as for dating, is to find a match.

More than 80 people registered for the event, and follow-ups with the attendees suggest it worked as planned: Eighty-five percent of participants said they met at least one potential collaborator, and seven pairs of researchers applied for internal pilot funding. Word has gotten out: Other institutions and organizations have contacted us hoping to learn how to run their own events.

This article is intended to provide suggestions for putting together your own speed-networking event, using ours as an example. It includes some reflections on a few things we'll do differently next time. You will no doubt adapt these instructions to your institution, limitations, audience, and desired outcomes. We hope you find our experience useful.

Why speed networking?

Although speed dating was invented by a Los Angeles, California, rabbi as a way for Jewish singles to meet, speed dating and its cousin, speed networking, were rapidly and widely adopted in New York City. That seems fitting, quips Brian Kelly, director of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise and Commercialization at Weill Cornell Medical College: New York is a city where "you're going to know the guy who delivers your Chinese food better than the guy who lives next door." The same can be said of large research institutions such as Weill Cornell, he says: "People on the fourth floor here don't know what happens on the fifth floor."

Kelly was on the team that wrote the grant proposal for Weill Cornell's Clinical and Translational Science Award, which they received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in September 2007. At a brainstorming session for the project in the summer of 2006, Kelly and his colleagues were thinking of innovative ways to promote new collaborations among researchers across CTSC's diverse institutions. Kelly had just read an article on speed dating in New York City, so he suggested it as something they could apply in the context of CTSC. None of the proposals, he says, "hit home in terms of the ability to get to know your neighbor as well as speed networking." Julianne Imperato-McGinley,
principal investigator of the CTSC, picked up on the suggestion and incorporated it into the grant proposal.

Once CTSC had its funding, Weill Cornell hired consultant Louise Holmes, an employment-skills consultant (and the author of the accompanying Perspective), to plan what would be called the Translational Research Bazaar. "There were very few, if any, examples of speed networking with this particular demographic," she says. So she watched YouTube videos of speed-networking events and attended a Manhattan Chamber of Commerce speed-networking event to get a feel for the setup and flow. But there was one question those events couldn't answer: Would the scientists buy into it?

"We didn't know what to expect," says Imperato-McGinley, CTSC's principal investigator. - Kate Travis

Read more about the scientists who attended the event in the boxes below.

Getting People There

We had an enthusiastically supportive advisory team that believed in this idea, but a speed-networking event for researchers at Weill Cornell was untried and untested. Would anyone attend? Would it be successful? We had no idea, but we worked up a plan and sallied forth.

The poster advertising the Clinical and Translational Science Center's Translational Research Bazaar. Poster design by Stan Povelikin (Click on image for full-size display.)

Two months before the event, we sent out a "save the date" e-mail broadcast with a subject-line teaser, "Find new research partners. Your funding may depend on it!" We were encouraged by an immediate flurry of "sign me up" responses and continued the e-mail campaign once a week until the final 3 weeks, when we accelerated our campaign.

Budget limitations meant that print advertising was out of the question, though we did invest in one poster. We worried that the Halloween-themed design was too cute for the serious business of science but went ahead anyway and attached it to our e-mail announcements, along with a request that recipients print it and post it in their departments. It attracted attention, which is what we needed.

People were required to register ahead of time by completing a form and sending it in via fax or e-mail. Because the purpose of our event was to help researchers find each other, we decided to gather key intelligence. In addition to the usual contact information, institution, and department, we asked three questions:

1. What is your top research interest?

2. What expertise are you looking for in a research partner?

3. What can you offer a research partner?

One week before and again 2 days before the event, we sent a reminder message with the event time, location, and specific instructions that everyone should bring a single-page information sheet about themselves. No one did.

In hindsight, and looking ahead to our next event, I'd recommend requiring that registrants complete an online bio with photo, contact information, and responses to the three questions about their research priorities and needs. Then, immediately following the event, I'd send a "thank you" follow-up with a link to these bios on a Web site. The photos will be a big help to the attendees, who will have met dozens of people in a short time. Taking a cue from online dating, that database would allow researchers--whether or not they attended the event--to peruse other researchers' interests and strengths to look for a match.

From Research Question to Grant Application

Stefano Rivella's research group takes a multidisciplinary approach to finding new drugs and potential gene therapies for Cooley's anemia, an inherited disease in which a mutation in the beta-globin gene prevents patients from making enough hemoglobin, the oxygen carrier molecule. Those afflicted with the disease require lifelong blood transfusions. The laboratory is already fairly heterogeneous, with researchers from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds.

But when Rivella's group, based at Weill Cornell Medical College, made an interesting observation about the mutations in the beta-globin gene, the corresponding mutant RNA molecules, and their effect on gene transfer, Rivella realized that he and his lab lacked the expertise to further study RNA's role in the disease.

That was last autumn--about the time Rivella received an e-mail advertising the Translational Research Bazaar. "Chances to really talk with scientists not in your specific field are not too common. I thought [the bazaar] was a good opportunity to meet someone, and so I embraced it with a positive spirit," says Rivella, an associate professor in genetic medicine in Weill Cornell's Department of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology.

Rivella met someone at the research bazaar who "was exactly what I was looking for": Nancy Greenbaum, a structural biologist at Hunter College in New York City who specializes in RNA. Rivella and Greenbaum continued talking in the weeks after the event, later bringing in computational biologist Alain Laederach of the Wadsworth Center at the New York State Department of Health. The trio has now submitted an NIH Challenge Grant that will start with the computational biology of these mutant RNAs (Laederach), their structure (Greenbaum), and their effect on the phenotype and gene transfer of Cooley's anemia (Rivella).

It's a research project that may have never come together, or at least come together as quickly, if it hadn't been for the speed-networking event. "The bottom line is, if you don't meet people, you will never find someone who can find you new information and a new vision," Rivella says. "Breakthroughs can only happen if you acknowledge that you don't know everything." - K.T.

More than 80 people signed up for our free event--but one-third of the registrants didn't show up. This wasn't unexpected--everyone is busy and things come up. Fortunately, many new people appeared on the day of the event to register onsite. So be prepared to be flexible.

Event logistics

We reserved a room that could accommodate 100 people. In an effort to keep the noise down so people could hear their partner across the table, we put our tables end to end lengthwise in two parallel rows with a wide space between them. Each line of tables had a row of chairs on each side, with partners facing one another across the table.

(Amelia Panico for Weill Cornell Medical College)
The tables at the speed-networking event were set up to minimize noise, maximize easy movement around the tables, and facilitate conversation.

We set up a microphone to be sure our signal to switch partners every 3 minutes would be heard over the din. I recommend a room with good acoustics and an excellent sound system. We had two large speakers strategically placed in the room, but once the event started, the noise level was very high. Forty-four intense, focused, simultaneous conversations ensured that one voice, even over a microphone, wasn't enough to get people's attention. Instead, we used a cowbell.

As participants arrived, we gave each a nametag and a canvas bag that included a pad of paper, a pencil, "dance cards," information about incentives CTSC was offering participants (including an additional $5000 in core services for a funded research project that originated from the research bazaar), and a bottle of water. The water was vital, as these people were about to spend the next 2 hours talking almost nonstop. The "dance cards" were color-coded to match the side of the table people sat on, and they listed the names and top research interests of each registrant, with a blank line to scribble a quick note.

We escorted clinicians to one side of the table and basic scientists to the other, with the help of six volunteer assistants. The assistants played a critical role throughout the event; I wouldn't attempt something like this without them. We also instructed the volunteers ahead of time to watch the emcee for cues to switch partners, because they might not hear the cue over the din.

Finding the Right Match

Susan Vannucci also had a mission at the Translational Research Bazaar: to find a collaborator for research she's doing on how different interventions help newborns recover from hypoxic–ischemic brain damage that occurs in the womb. Vannucci's research uses an animal model to study this type of acute injury, and she needed someone who could help her study the effects of different substrates in live, brain-damaged rats.

"There's been such an explosion of techniques that you can't do it all yourself," says Vannucci, research professor of neuroscience in pediatrics/newborn medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.

At the research bazaar she met Carl Le, head of the animal imaging core at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His facility provides magnetic resonance imaging on small animals--just what Vannucci needed to move her project forward. "This is what was perfect about the CTSC arrangement: You had people with techniques and people with questions. And in the best of all possible worlds, they found each other," Vannucci says.

After the event, Le and Vannucci applied for a $25,000 Novel Technologies Award from CTSC and got it. They also received a coupon for $5000 of core services--an incentive CTSC offered to any successful Novel Technologies Award application from a collaboration formed at the research bazaar.

"This forum suits quite well bench-to-bedside type of research because it bridges pretty big field gaps," Le says. "There are a lot of barriers to doing collaborative work across institutes, especially when you do clinical work. From the top level if they support cross-institutional efforts, then I think that will make life a lot easier for us." - K.T.

We gave participants explicit instructions about how the speed networking would work--e.g., "If you're seated on SIDE B, when you hear the signal, you need to get up and move one chair to the right"--then gave them a sample of the cowbell sound that would cue them to change partners. We began by giving each pair 2 minutes to speak. After three rounds, the participants insisted on more time, so we acquiesced and gave them 3 minutes to quickly introduce themselves to one another and state their primary research interest and need.

We also encouraged them, when meeting someone with whom they discovered no common interest, to refer the person to a colleague.

(Amelia Panico for Weill Cornell Medical College)

Monica N. Fornier, breast oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, meets Hunter College biologist Paul Feinstein at the Translational Research Bazaar in October. Bonus video clip from the event provided by Louise Holmes.

More recommendations: Provide participants with a complete set of instructions ahead of time. In your instructions, tell the participants what to expect overall, give them explicit guidance on the logistics, tell them how any incentives will work, what specific follow-up evaluation and tracking activities you plan, and why this is important. Also let them know when they can expect access to the full contact data and photos of their fellow participants. Definitely provide participants with easy-to-carry bags, a dance card, water, and a pencil.

During the Event

Our Translational Research Bazaar was scheduled for midafternoon. After opening remarks and instructions, we planned 90 minutes for the speed-networking activity, followed by an hour for the wine-and-cheese reception. We had trouble sticking to the plan exactly as envisioned. After more than an hour of rapid-fire conversations, during which each person had already met 25 other people, everyone was exhausted and begging for a break, so we took one--5 minutes. That slowed the momentum and a few people left, leaving us with holes in our seating arrangements and some scrambling to do. Next time I'd either keep the speed networking to an hour, or perhaps schedule a 15-minute beverage-and-snack break about 45 minutes in, followed by another 40 minutes of speed networking, and then by a reception.

By the end of the speed networking, the collective energy, adrenaline, and enthusiasm in the room was surging and people had ideas they were anxious to discuss. The wine-and-cheese hour that followed turned out to be a critical and powerful element of the Research Bazaar. People could unwind and carry on a more relaxed conversation with people they'd identified as potential collaborators.

Generating Buzz

Organizers and contributors to the planning of the research bazaar were pleased with the event overall. "It was kind of fun, it was kind of light. It wasn't a Gordon Conference," says Brian Kelly of the Cornell Center for Technology, Enterprise & Commercialization. "It wasn't highly pressured. ... It was just, 'Let's see if we can make a connection and then take it further if we need to.' "

"It was very exciting. For me it was an eye opener even though I knew how it was planned. I thought it was extremely powerful," says Robert Dottin, director of the Center for Study of Gene Structure and Function at Hunter College. Dottin wasn't looking for research collaborators, but he joined the speed-networking rotation anyway, talking with 40 clinicians and suggesting potential collaborators from within his center.

Dottin has been something of an ambassador for the speed-networking event, bringing it up during his frequent talks around the country. Raphael D. Isokpehi was in the audience when Dottin discussed social networking and speed networking at a clinical and translational informatics networking meeting in February. Isokpehi, director of the Center for Bioinformatics & Computational Biology at Jackson State University in Mississippi, says what appealed to him about speed networking was "the opportunity to meet a lot of people within a short space of time."

"In most cases when you go to a conference or a meeting, you don't get to meet all the people there," Isokpehi says. "I just felt that 3 minutes' interaction with someone could lead to potentially strong research opportunities or networking opportunities, or in the case of students, [the value] could be in finding mentors, or developing new research topics."

Isokpehi took the idea to organizers of the MidSouth Computational Biology and Bioinformatics Society annual meeting, who had been looking for activities that students could participate in. They decided to integrate a speed-networking session into the program so students could meet with potential employers. Isokpehi and his colleagues then used the speed-networking format during Bioinformatics Awareness Month in April at Jackson State in an event intended to introduce small-business owners to professionals and faculty members at the university. Isokpehi and the organizers of both events already plan to integrate speed-networking sessions into both meetings next year.

"Speed networking brings that face-to-face interaction that you can't get from the online avenues," Isokpehi says. - K.T.

Kate Travis is the editor of CTSciNet, the Clinical and Translational Science Network at Science Careers.

We anticipated that most of the people who came would be early-career scientists. Instead, we ended up with scientists from every career stage. We had a nice balance of clinical and basic researchers from all of our five CTSC partner institutions and several affiliated community hospitals, representing many disciplines.

We were gratified by the enthusiasm displayed by the 88 scientists in the room, none of whom had ever participated in such an event. They had no idea what to expect, but they dove right in with a spirit of fun. Conversations were immediate, focused, and intense--and loud.

Final advice

Decide ahead of time what outcomes you desire and how you'll track them. We were clear on ours: We wanted new research partnerships across disciplines, among our partner institutions, and between basic and clinical scientists. We have a talented CTSC Evaluation Team who helped us create a strategy to track the number of "new partners" who submitted grant proposals over the course of the following year. Tracking is challenging because our participants came from seven institutions, but follow-up surveys and phone calls have produced results.

We continue to hear from people excited about the new research opportunities that opened up for them after the event by talking with someone they probably wouldn't have met without stepping outside of their usual research network.

Will we do it again this year? Absolutely. The Clinical and Translational Science Center Second Annual Translational Research Bazaar is scheduled for October 2009.

Louise Holmes is a special projects consultant at the Weill Cornell Medical College Clinical and Translational Science Center in New York City. She is a founding partner of Nine Work Lives, a company that helps people develop the agility to thrive during periods of rapid change.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers