TAMPA, Fla. – Paired off around stylish chairs and tables, munching on hors d’oevres and sipping drinks, people who have clearly just met laugh and smile tentatively. Among them, ferns that sprout from planters crawl up one whitewashed wall; large-screen TVs flicker from another, and palm trees sway outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Tiny light fixtures hanging from the ceiling look like stars.
Romantic? Sure. That’s the idea. But not for the purpose you might think.
This “synergy social” at the University of South Florida isn’t meant to hook up singles seeking love, but scientists and academics looking for collaborators.
“I can guarantee you, someone will be interested,” says Yu Sun, a professor of computer science and engineering at USF who has attended several of these events and emerged with partners—often specialists from the neighboring medical center—for joint research projects.
“It’s beneficial to talk with people from other fields, especially the people who are really close to a problem,” Sun says. “When we do research we need to go out and see the problem we need to solve, not just sit in our labs and imagine it.”
This speed-dating approach to collaboration is taking off at universities where scientists want to develop practical applications for their work, and where collaboration with counterparts from different fields on the same and nearby campuses is seen as a way to get there.
It’s also being tried at academic conferences. And advocates say it can be equally effective at private companies, especially those in engineering and technology, some of which are starting to adopt this approach.
“The idea isn’t new. It just hasn’t been applied this way in science,” says Jeffrey Grossman, a professor of engineering who began running what he calls “speedstorming” sessions—a combination of “speed dating” and “brainstorming”—when he was a postdoc at Berkeley, and who has been asked by technology and engineering companies to show them how it’s done.
“What’s happened in science, compared to 100 years ago, is that the vertical well of depth that you have to go into is much deeper because we know a lot more,” says Grossman, now at MIT. “In a way, that creates a challenge to this Renaissance idea that you can bridge gaps between disciplines. But it’s no excuse to not do it. It’s this incredibly important part of creativity and idea-generation that scientists aren’t paying enough attention to.”
Others point out that academics and engineers sometimes prefer the solitude of their labs to social situations.
“Scientists are just people. They have the same concerns and fears about approaching a new person,” Grossman says.
“I don’t know whether it’s nature versus nurture. You’d have to ask a psychologist,” says Graham Jones, chair of chemistry at Northeastern University, who attended a speed-dating session at the nearby Tufts-New England Medical Center that resulted in collaborations. “But the current way science is being funded and promoted really encourages people to stay in their lab and to stay focused on their work and not talk to strangers.”
Overcoming that was the point of the event at Tufts, says Karen Freund, associate director for research collaboration at Tufts’ Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
“Part of why we did it this way was to get people out of their labs and their offices and encourage them to meet people who, even though our campus is not huge, they might not know otherwise,” Freund says.
“It’s almost a luxury to take time out to talk to one another,” she says. “But there’s no substitute for face-to-face conversation.”
Academics may be comparatively solitary, Freund says, “but these are individuals who are inquisitive and ultimately interested in these connections, which is why the speed-dating method is successful.”
Surprisingly successful, according to an experiment run at a conference at the Royal Society in London, which included two 90-minute speed-dating sessions among 24 biophysicists, mathematicians, biochemists, and experts in bioinformatics paired up for five rounds of 15-minute icebreakers. Twelve walked away with collaborative projects.
“The sum is greater than the parts,” says Jones, of Northeastern University. “You really need to broaden your horizons and collaborate with people across the board. What might seem an insurmountable problem to one person is actually quite solvable to another.”
At a speed-dating event at Berkeley, researchers were paired off for three minutes each, measured with an egg timer. In two hours, a test group of 10 people from six departments produced 45 proposals.
“At first people feel silly. So there’s a little bit of getting over the silliness factor of it,” Grossman says. “Then, as soon as you do it, there’s an energy in the room that’s hard to describe. Every single time I’ve speed-stormed, there is a sense of excitement.
“You’re not only intersecting people’s science, you’re intersecting people. And there’s a real value to that.”
The private sector should take note. Engineering teams in any organization can be siloed away with little connection to one another. Cross-departmental speed dating could be a way to brainstorm fresh ideas and see the bigger picture.
“In every situation I’ve tried it in, there would be a benefit,” says Grossman. “Why is this catching on? Part of it is because when people do this they just like it. And part of what they like is that they’re communicating in a way that takes out of the picture all the usual social norms that keep people from communicating with each other. So it feels safe, different, and exciting. And there is a lot of potential for idea-generation.”