Look across the research landscape, and it can be said that a university is a collection of thousands of sole traders housed across campus, often competing for the same dwindling funds, collaborations and public profile. As a result, culture takes a back seat. But if you get your culture right, high impact publications, funding and partnerships will grow dramatically, writes Kathy Nicholson, Chief Operating Officer of the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP).
There’s more to culture than just being happy at work. It’s a critical part of the research mix and leads to better science. In the 7 years since the CNBP launched, we’ve created a culture that has revolutionised research and continues to provide the blueprint for transdisciplinary collaboration not just within academia, but also with industry, government and the community.
The results speak for themselves: 15 spin-out or start-up companies and over 30 industry partnerships. Off the back of these ventures, researchers are winning competitive fellowships and collaborating on large-scale multidisciplinary projects.
Our researchers, who come from universities across Australia, and indeed the world, tell us the CNBP’s culture has transformed how they work, recruit and collaborate. Take RMIT University’s Professor Andrew Greentree, a CNBP Chief Investigator for Theory and Modelling. Back in 2013, as the CNBP was getting off the ground, he was very much rooted in his discipline of theoretical physics.
Now, thanks to the CNBP’s collegial culture, he sees research through a different, multifaceted lens.
‘Specialisation is a good thing, but it doesn’t always give you the tools to make connections — and that’s really what the Centre has done. It’s helped us to reach out across disciplines and make breakthroughs in ways that we just couldn’t have before,’ says Prof Greentree.
‘I’ve never had an experience with a group like this. It’s really amazing.’
This culture isn’t an accident; a collegiate group of researchers with different specialties, spread across the country, doesn’t transpire without a few crucial elements. Here’s how we built a culture of openness and discovery.
FIRST — GET SOCIAL
Social events are often afterthoughts in the often-staid world of research, but they are critical in building trust.
From day one, the CNBP has incorporated a highly social and inclusive aspect to our annual conferences. As people arrive from across the nation, we start with some team building and ensure the conference includes a half-day event that had nothing to do with the science. These activities are about getting to know each other and becoming comfortable in each other’s company. We aim to get everyone involved — so that means different activity options. One year, our team had the choice of going swimming with tuna or enjoying a wine-tasting tour. Because we are connected by research, conversations naturally drift to science, but in a less structured way than during the rest of the conference.
This social aspect is not limited to conferences. Because CNBP is across 5 campuses, different labs also prioritise social time together. And, by request of one of our early career researchers, we have created events specifically for early career researchers — no bosses allowed — where they can talk about the issues that most affect them.
The benefits of those collective relaxed moments echo throughout the year. They create camaraderie; people share laughs, memories and funny moments. It means that when they’re in serious discussions down the track, people from dramatically different disciplines aren’t afraid to ask basic questions about another’s science.
That camaraderie has been critical from the early years and throughout the life of the Centre. It creates an atmosphere for new members where they feel comfortable to ask their questions as part of a happy, inclusive team.
For Aimee Horsfall, a CNBP member completing her PhD in peptide chemistry at the University of Adelaide, this ‘structured networking’ with researchers from other disciplines encourages her to think about her work from fresh angles.
‘It’s not meant to be uncomfortable, but it’s to push you out of your comfort zone a little bit.’
‘The biggest thing for me is that it really forces you to not just think of your one goal. So from my perspective, if I’m making a drug or something to probe a biological process, is this actually of interest to somebody in biology? I can do all this fancy chemistry, but if that doesn’t mean something to a biologist or clinician on the other side, then it doesn’t really matter.’
GENEROSITY IN LEADERSHIP
The senior leadership team foster close connections by regularly meeting for dinner whenever we find ourselves in the same city. These bonds are felt by the entire organisation.
But it’s not just close relationships between the senior leaders that are important. How we interact with the rest of the Centre is vital to building and sustaining an open, sharing culture.
Something that always stands out to me about CNBP Director, Prof Mark Hutchinson, is his radical generosity with his colleagues. He genuinely wants to see everyone succeed — it’s part of his ethos. He is not selfish in his leadership, and he is always open to different ideas. In short, he sets the tone for the Centre.
By setting this example, everyone is put at ease — even early career scientists, who may just be starting, says CNBP member Patrick Capon, who is developing sensors as part of his PhD project at the University of Adelaide.
‘Mark always opens CNBP workshops or conferences with a bit of a statement around keeping it a supportive atmosphere and having an honest conversation about the pros and cons of your science. And I think that’s really important for new students learning, because it means that there are no silly questions.’
Indeed, it’s obvious when you talk to Mark — or any of our chief investigators, for that matter — that they are very much focused on building a future for the younger researchers. The question of how we generate sustainable funding and an inclusive culture that creates a confident and successful next generation of scientists is the hallmark of this leadership team. It’s a deliberate decision by the team and is completely embedded in how they do their science and lead their staff.
It is evident in the more administrative aspects of research too, Aimee says.
‘Mark’s been transparent with things like how grant funding or translation is tackled. I think that has also been an added development that you don’t necessarily get exposure to until you have to do it yourself in other settings outside of the CNBP.’
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PROFESSIONAL TEAM
While culture is top of mind for all leaders at CNBP, the professional team proudly comprises the chief cultural officers. We are very much focused on ensuring the team is a happy one, and as COO, I see that as one of my key performance indicators.
By nature of having a highly collaborative culture, we are able to make sure that where complex issues and arguments arise, they are handled, rather than pushed to one side or ignored.
A big challenge in doing so is that the majority of our members are located across 5 campuses in Australia. So, as part of my work, I travel to all offices at least twice a year. Before I arrive, I put a call out to the entire team, and if anyone wants to meet me, they can book in a time. This system has been particularly helpful for those who, whether for cultural or other reasons, may find it difficult to ask their supervisor specific questions. We are a safe harbour.
FINALLY — LEARN EACH OTHER’S DISCIPLINES
If science is to tackle global and societal issues, researchers must collaborate across the disciplines. The Big Science approach underpins our work, and that’s why we brought 12 different research groups together. Understanding each other’s research and discipline languages was just the starting point.
Go to a science conference and everybody is an absolute expert in their research field. But if you have a PhD in biochemistry, you won’t necessarily understand the basics of quantum physics, cardiology or embryology. So at our very first conference, researchers presented on the fundamentals of their specialties — quantum physics 101, cardiology 101 or imaging 101 — to bring everyone up to speed. And at later conferences we have always started with a quick refresher course for new members.
A significant proportion of our training is around teaching people how to communicate across disciplines, something that’s usually done poorly in science. Not many people know how to communicate beyond their specialisation because they’re too caught up in terminology and detail.
Stripping away jargon in scientific discussions helped Aimee Horsfall better understand her own research. ‘It makes you challenge preconception within your own field, and realise assumptions you’ve made.,’ she says. ‘If you can explain your science in 6 different ways, you must have the depth of knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise have if you just babble off to another bunch of people in your same discipline.’
We also ask presenters at CNBP events that talks don’t dive straight into the science. You first spend time outlining impact, implications and introduction. Only then can you get into the detail and talk about what you’re looking for and what your problems are.
That way, a chemist or physicist might be able to solve your problem, because if they can understand what you‘re grappling with as a biologist — on a high level, not the nitty-gritty — then together you‘re more likely to find a project that works.
For Andrew Greentree, knowledge sharing has broadened his perspective and, consequently, bolstered his research. ‘I’m learning as much from biology and chemistry PhDs as I can teach them. It’s a two-way street,’ he says.
‘I now have a much better understanding of what’s going on in biological systems and am able to ask questions that I couldn’t have asked before.
‘If you work with people who are open and creative, then you can build something much stronger — and there might be opportunities bigger than you initially thought of.’