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Multicultural relationships: Working across industries

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Researchers share their advice on collaborating with colleagues in different work environments.

Academic researchers are increasingly venturing out of the laboratory and into unfamiliar professional territory. The draw might be a multidisciplinary project, industry collaboration, or consulting. The new field might be government, law, or even the military. To ease interactions with colleagues in other fields with different work environments, seven researchers share what they've learned about productive, professional cross-disciplinary relationships.

Academic scientists have more opportunities than ever to collaborate across disciplines through industry open innovation programs, translational science grants, and joint projects between scientists and educators. But these interactions pull science professors away from campus, with its student-oriented culture, tolerance of eccentricity, and relaxed dress code. Here we provide guidance on expectations and norms in work environments outside of academic science, from education to government to industry.

You will find it a shock to be in an environment where science isn’t the most important thing.

Muffy Calder

Learning from education

Jennifer Eklund helps scientists have an impact by showing them how their contributions can fit into a particular grade level and match curriculum considerations such as the Next Generation Science Standards that guide U.S. science education.

Universities are places of learning, so academic scientists might be inspired to contribute their knowledge and skills to improving general education. However, they might not know where to begin. A good starting point is an educational outreach program, where researchers get an introduction to K–12 education from experts like Jennifer Eklund, who has a science Ph.D. and postdoctoral training in education. At the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, Eklund works as a liaison between researchers and educators working together to improve a science curriculum. The researchers also benefit from the partnership, says Eklund: "They get exposed to education theory and methods that can help with their own teaching."

At the beginning of a collaboration with educators, academic researchers "want to share both big ideas and minute details," says Eklund, "and often come in wanting to tell teachers what to do." She helps scientists have an impact by showing them how their contributions can fit into a particular grade level and match curriculum considerations such as the Next Generation Science Standards that guide U.S. science education. Eklund also offers scientists guidance about how to work with educators, who tend use positive reinforcement in their interactions with each other. "Teachers are used to a school environment with students," she says, "so they can sometimes be taken aback by the direct criticism that is a part of the culture of scientists."

Lessons in law

Blaine Bettinger says that scientists initially encountering intellectual property law are struck by the formality, not only in dress but also in language, compared with the laid-back atmosphere of academia.

Another department now common on campus is the technology transfer office. Commercializing results is a complex process and researchers need the guidance of navigators like Blaine Bettinger, who specializes in intellectual property at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Syracuse, New York. Like Eklund, Bettinger has a science Ph.D. and is a liaison between two fields, in this case, science and law. Although an advanced science degree generally doesn't mean much to attorneys, Bettinger says his biochemistry Ph.D. provides him with a bond with his scientist clients. "They recognize me as someone who went through the same trial by fire," he says, "although I jumped out and they stayed in."

Bettinger says that scientists initially encountering intellectual property law are struck by the formality, not only in dress but also in language, compared with the laid-back atmosphere of academia. Scientists who are used to openly and casually sharing their ideas must learn to communicate them in legalese, which can be daunting. "Don't be afraid to ask questions," says Bettinger. "A good patent attorney will be more than happy to answer them." Over time, Bettinger has learned to anticipate the confusion and concerns of his inventor clients. Fortunately, he says, "scientists are always excited about their ideas," and that enthusiasm can power them through the complicated patent process.

Vikram Jandhyala recalls his first encounter with research commercialization as, "like going back to school for a few days—a great learning experience." Jandhyala is a former chair of electrical engineering and the incoming vice provost for innovation at the University of Washington. In 2006, he commercialized cloud-based software for electromagnetic simulations that was developed by his research group. Jandhyala worked with experts from the university commercialization center, who taught his group best practices for intellectual property protection including how to present and publish their results. Incorporating this new work style had a steep learning curve, he says, but several factors helped. His postdocs and students were eager to become entrepreneurs. Also, the initial research had an applied orientation because it was funded by DARPA, which Jandhyala says, "drives projects in startup mode, with people in teams and providing monthly project updates."

For researchers preparing to work with patent attorneys and especially venture capitalists, Jandhyala advises being prepared for a cold, hard evaluation of your potential product. "With funding as it is, faculty members are used to people saying no to them," he says. "It's the same when you raise funds for a startup. What's different is the directness of potential investors telling you your idea is not market ready. But these people are doing you a favor, telling you to change your technology early so you develop the right product for your customers."

Inside industry

Scientists who get beyond the patent stage might find themselves in yet another professional culture: the science-based company. Expect a goal-oriented atmosphere with stricter deadlines than academia, say industry researchers. Companies ultimately must deliver products to customers and that bottom line influences the work culture, even at firms with strong research departments. In addition, says Joan Greve, academic scientists entering industry partnerships should be aware of how much work is required to bring a product to market and that it might never happen.

Joan Greve
Brandon Baier, U-M BME

Greve worked for the biotech company Genentech for many years, before and after earning a bioengineering Ph.D., and was a scientific program manager at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a nonprofit organization supported in part by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. Greve is now applying this broad professional experience to setting up her own research group. She is a new biomedical engineering faculty member at the University of Michigan where she is studying preclinical medical imaging.

"Experiencing different work environments is a great way to develop your own management style," she says. "I learned not from any one environment but from several: academic, for-profit, nonprofit, and flat and hierarchical structures." Greve's personal management philosophy boils down to stating expectations up front, which helps people be prepared and efficient. "The golden rule of management," she says, "is no surprises. Give clear expectations and be committed to open communication that goes both ways. This is something that can be applied to any environment or workplace." The website for Greve's research group illustrates this principle, telling potential members that she expects individual initiative from them and pledging "ample encouragement" in return.

Clear expectations are also the foundation of a solid professional relationship between academic and industry scientists, says Greve. Especially important is setting up realistic timelines and milestones from the start. This gives everyone a sense of the project lifespan, she says, especially university researchers who might not realize how long it can take to develop a potential medical device or drug. A clear-cut plan can also help academic scientists understand how crucial it is to stay on track by producing agreed-upon deliverables on time.

Even for academic scientists who are not considering industry collaborations, Greve has advice from her diverse professional background. Training in leadership, budgeting, and other practical skills should be a standard part of a scientist's training, she says. Faculty advisors can prepare their students and postdocs for any career, says Greve, by training them to "think like a leader. What is your mission and how can you arrange day-to-day operations to achieve it?"

Within the military perimeter

Lior Weizman echoes Greve's points about the long timelines of product development and the importance of good team leadership, but his industry experience is from a place that most scientists never experience: the military. Weizman is an electrical engineering postdoctoral fellow at the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion) who did his conscripted service at Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. First, he would like to correct a common but incorrect mental image: he did not wear fatigues and carry firearms at work. "I did my military service sitting in an office at a computer," he says, "and going to meetings in which everyone freely expressed their opinions, just like in any industry."

Working for a military-related industry means adhering to some absolute rules, though. Military scientists can't work from home, says Weizman, because classified materials must stay onsite. Deadlines are strict, with no extensions. "In academic research, if you miss a submission deadline, you can find another journal or conference or grant," he says. "In the army, other units are relying on your work so it must be done on time." The high level of professional cooperation and coordination, he says, is similar to any industry in which many groups contribute to a joint project.

Weizman worked on imaging applications for Rafael and now studies medical imaging. He finds that this dual background helps him explain the motivation behind his research to students and the public because at Rafael, he had to think about how scientific theory could be applied to real-world problems. Industry work also taught him the importance of a well-functioning team. Now in a position to recruit students, Weizman says that although he considers their grades, the most important quality he wants in a coworker is the ability to get along with others: "knowing how to negotiate, share ideas, and work side-by-side with other people."

In the halls of government

Even scientists who remain strictly within their academic department can't avoid intersecting with the government. For one thing, research funding is driven by national and global priorities about health, energy, climate, and other science-related fields. Some scientists interact even more closely with the government through contract work or as expert consultants. Fortunately, university researchers have a built-in training program for government work: administration.

Muffy Calder

Muffy Calder is a professor in computing science at the University of Glasgow and chief scientific advisor for Scotland. Serving as chair of her professional association was an excellent introduction to her advisory work, she says: "I learned about the process of government consultations and how to explain the contributions of my discipline to government policies." She was also dean of research for the College of Science and Engineering, which gave her broader exposure to the strengths and challenges in different scientific disciplines. "It was an excellent preparation for my role in government," she says. "It prepared me for being an advocate for all of these areas." Calder will bring her government experience back to academia this year, when she returns to the University of Glasgow full time, as vice principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering.

Researchers often confuse two different aspects of the government-science relationship, says Calder. The government uses science to inform policy and advising in that area is Calder's job. A separate governmental role is supporting the conduct of science, for example through research funding. In dealing with people in government, advises Calder, remember that informing policy and funding research are different concerns.

In approaching policymakers, Calder advises a little mental reorientation. The best advice she received before starting her national position as scientific advisor was to expect a work culture that doesn't revolve around your research. "You will find it a shock to be in an environment where science isn't the most important thing," she was told, "and you won't only talk with scientists." Don't worry, though. Civil servants are exceptionally collegial, she says, and strongly committed to working together.

In government, you're in a politician's world, so adapt to their perspective. "Understand the problems that people in government are trying to solve," says Calder. "Don't just tell them your results, but help them find solutions for their problems." Remember that politicians must justify their positions to voters and stating, "This is supported by scientific evidence," is generally not convincing. Calder says, "We need scientists to not only present evidence to politicians and civil servants, but also help them to explain findings and policies based on that evidence."

The secret to multicultural relationships

For experience in cross-disciplinary relationships, no one can beat Randy Olson. In 1994, he left a tenured marine biology position at the University of New Hampshire to become a filmmaker. Now, in addition to making films, he writes books, gives talks, and holds workshops on science communication. Olson's advice for scientists who want to build a solid relationship with people in a different professional field is, of course, that communication is crucial. But science communication is more than just knowing how to market yourself and having a message. Too much science communication advice focuses on the icing and skips the cake, says Olson. The icing is quick tips about being concise and getting people's attention. "The cake," says Olson "is listening. Really listening is the core of communication. The academic world doesn't train us to listen. The academic world trains us to lecture."

In fact, Olson's advice encapsulates the single message that emerged from all the experts in multidisciplinary interactions: Take the focus off yourself. Listen to your colleagues, consider their background and perspective, and recognize and respect their knowledge, skills, and experience. Think about your team, your common goal and how you can contribute to getting stuff done. And don't forget to have fun together, adds Greve: "Science is hard. You have to celebrate success."

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