Open to Results
By Maggie Dugan
KI tries to stay in touch with the scientists and academics who’ve come through our events, to track the progress of their projects, monitor the impact of the Sandpit (a.k.a. Ideas Lab) and how it accelerates scientific innovation and also just to hear from participants, with some time to reflect, about their experience at our workshops. Here’s another Sandpit tale, following up on two projects that we’ve had the privilege of midwifing in the last few years.
Anne Osbourn, Group Leader in the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, was only starting to explore the concept of synthetic biology when she attended a meeting about synthetic products from plants in early 2009. A colleague at that meeting suggested she apply to attend an upcoming Sandpit on synthetic biology, sponsored in tandem by the EPRSC and the NSF because they were looking for people with different perspectives. Since Osbourn had taken a year-long sabbatical in the school of literature and creative writing, she guessed she might be more “out of the box” than her colleagues. On a whim, she decided to apply.
“I probably would have been too conservative, or I just wouldn’t have gotten around to it,” she said, “if I hadn’t been told that the deadline for applying was the next day.”
Osbourn was accepted, and before she knew it she was signed up for a social network website for the Sandpit where she had to answer random questions like what was her favorite film. When she arrived in Washington, DC for the workshop, people kept asking her the same question. “I was a bit skeptical,” she said, “with the facilitators and all this friendly stuff.” But by the end of the 5-day event, she realized the importance of having outside facilitators to take care of the process so the participants were freed up to focus solely on the science. “If you had just put a bunch of scientists in a confined space for a few days, without anyone intervening, it might not have been so good.”
In the end, Osbourn was funded, for a project titled Syntegron, but not before enduring the rollercoaster week wondering if she’d find the right people to team with, if a project would even come together and if so, would it be funded. “But we pulled together and wrote a good proposal and that made me think that if you are very motivated, with the right people engaged, you can do anything in a short space of time.”
The field of synthetic biology was new to Osbourn, as was the concept of a Sandpit, and she’s been inspired by the combination of both. “I’ve used synthetic biology as a tool, bringing engineering principles to biology,” she said. “It really gives people carte blanche to set aside their normal ways and to think differently. You’ve got permission to brainstorm and you don’t need to be constrained. Nothing sounds stupid.”
Hermann Klug was accustomed to working in a multi-disciplinary setting, it’s typical for his Centre of Geoinformatics at the University of Salzburg. That was one of the things that attracted him to the Delivering a Sustainable Future for Freshwater Resources Sandpit that KI facilitated in March of 2011. Another reason he applied: a chance to be part of a multi-national team of scientists. The event was sponsored by FRENZ, an organization that fosters cooperation between scientists in the EU and New Zealand. Hermann was one of ten European researchers who traveled halfway around the globe to attend the workshop with ten New Zealand scientists.
“My intention was to meet a lot of people and to exchange expertise,” said Klug, who found his teammates fairly early in the process. The project they developed, SMART, uses remote sensing techniques to harmonize the datasets available from the regional councils for better characterization of New Zealand’s groundwater systems.
Klug describes the Sandpit week as an intensive process. “I mean always thinking, exchanging, putting ideas together, and this was of course exhausting on the one hand, but on the other hand it was very productive.” Like Osbourn, he realized what can be accomplished with the time pressure. “You cannot come up with the kind of result we achieved in this short time period in another way. I mean doing it remotely and circulating project ideas, that’s taking much much longer than this one-week exercise.”
Klug appreciated being nudged around the room to sit at different tables and have diverse conversations with a number of different people. “Even just talking to other people and collecting their ideas was helpful.” This Sandpit included a lot of outside speakers – maybe too many and for too long – but he was still glad for the input and to be given such thorough context. Another plus, he said, was the immediate feedback, as the proposal was developing, from the stakeholders and the mentors, as well as his peers in the participant group.
Klug says he was directly and indirectly inspired by the Sandpit techniques, and has used some of them in his own meetings. “I’ve tried to make something like a creative thinking environment. To get some components from the Sandpit into our own process, like when politicians get together with researchers, to get them more comfortable with the thinking process rather than thinking about political constraints and laws and such.”
Both scientists had very similar advice to future Sandpit (or Ideas Labs) participants:
“Be open minded,” said Osbourn. “Stay somewhat flexible. I say somewhat because it’s important to be open but also to hang on to what you think is a really good thing to do. It’ll be challenged.”
She also had some very practical advice: “Make sure you have a good laptop, mine was rubbish. Be prepared not to sleep for a while toward the end of the week. As for team dynamics, try to think about how you can most effectively achieve what is required within the team, which could actually mean not doing much for a while, and that’s quite hard. You have to let others do things, sometimes.”
“Just book the flight and go,” said Klug. “You cannot really prepare. You need to be open, to be able to receive feedback. Not to be too focused. Just let yourself be inspired by the process. This is the best way to describe it. Not to break away from it, but to allow it. Just be open.”
Know Further: More about synthetic biology here and here. Here’s something else that emerged from that Sandpit: Synthetic Aesthetics. More about FRENZ (Facilitating Research Cooperation between Europe and New Zealand) and freshwater management in New Zealand. And of course, the benefits of being open-minded.