I’ve returned to Mill Hill after two weeks away and in my absence a lot has changed. It’s now a couple of months since the move into the new building started, however up until recently this has mainly been relocating and recommissioning large pieces of equipment – the NMR machines, electron microscopes, DNA sequencers and so on – relatively few people had moved. But while I was away, the first research labs left Mill Hill and took up residency in the new building. Many of Mill Hill’s Drosophila and structure biology labs have moved and every week from now until Christmas more labs will be moving. From what I hear, people are excited and impressed by the building. The move of lab equipment and lab reagents seems to have gone better than expected. But there are inevitable teething problems – some sockets are in the wrong place, the purified water isn’t working yet and the canteen hasn’t opened. And of course there’s a lack of familiarity for everyone. Like moving house and learning where the light switches are, I imagine it will take some time to settle in to the new building. It will be interesting to hear how opinions and feelings change over the next few weeks and months as each of the labs make themselves at home.
Back at Mill Hill there are noticeably fewer people around, particularly on some of the floors. I think there are few sights more depressing than a bare and abandoned lab, but they are now starting to appear around our once packed building.
Seeing them makes me think of all the hard work and long hours given by the people who had occupied the labs and also the interactions and discussions I’ve had with the people that have left. It is those conversations that I have come to value the most about being at Mill Hill. Indeed, one of the reasons for funding research institutes is that putting a large number of researchers together creates the critical mass necessary for collaborations that wouldn’t happen otherwise. To support this argument, statistics about joint publications, grants and research projects are often cited. However, my own personal experience is that these statistics only capture part of the benefits. At least as important as these formal interactions are the informal exchanges and corridor discussions. These can be mundane and difficult to quantify. It might be the sharing of a critical reagent, a handy little tip about how to get a piece of equipment to work, or who to ask for advice. On the other hand, they can also be scientific discussions about each other’s projects or about a paper that’s just been published. I’ve frequently found these stimulating and useful. They might be on subjects far from my own research interests, but on more than one occasion these have made me aware of a connection that I hadn’t noticed before or suggested a useful comparison that I hadn’t previously thought about. These can lead to further ideas and more discussion and offer a new perspective to the problem I’m thinking about.
I was particularly reminded of this because I spent the two weeks I’ve been away from Mill Hill at Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in UC Santa Barbara participating in a summer school that brings together biologists and physicists interested in embryo development and morphogenesis. I always enjoy attending summer schools, in part because I usually learn at least as much as the students. But also summer schools tend to have a more relaxed atmosphere than a typical conference and this offers a great opportunity to discuss ideas and learn new things, especially from researchers outside my own field. KITP is particularly good in this respect, because, as the name implies, for most of the year it hosts theoretical physicists. This means the culture of discussion and interaction is encouraged, almost to the point of compulsion. Signaling this, on arrival everyone is issued with a coffee mug with your name on it. Everyday at 3pm, a message is sent that coffee and cookies are served in the Common Room and as you drink your coffee the mug serves the same purpose as a conference name badge. This ritual means even the more introverted visitors are encouraged to talk to new people. I spent several enjoyable and thought-provoking afternoons wandering the KITP corridors, with my coffee mug, meeting new people and dropping into offices to chat and exchange ideas. Whether anything will come of these discussions, I don’t know, but it’s certainly a great way for new ideas to bubble up or to get a new view on an old idea.
It also made me realise that as research scientists we develop two groups of colleagues. A set of people in our home institutes who we interact with on a daily basis and whose views and ideas we become very familiar with; then a second group, scattered around the world, who share our interests and approaches, but who we only meet occasionally. It’s a privilege to be in this situation and the contrasting views and ideas that come from these two groups mean that I’m rarely lost for inspiration. It’s also fascinating to see how the ideas and discussions develop over time, presumably influenced by all the other conversations happening at other institutes, conferences and summer schools. Over the next few months, I’ll miss the spontaneous discussions with colleagues that have left Mill Hill but I look forward to rejoining them when it’s my turn to move. When I do move, the bonus will be that there will be new colleagues there too and for a while I expect it to feel a bit like a summer school with all the new people and new ideas.