There are few things as important to our society as the ability to communicate with one another. It helps us express our ideas and feelings, understand the thoughts and emotions of others and build relationships. Communication allows us to both learn new ideas and pass our knowledge on. Without the ability to communicate, we would likely be one of the most primitive species on the planet.
And it’s not just a philosophical necessity. Communication is also key to the successful progression of healthcare research. Some of the reasons behind this are fairly obvious. Researchers need to be able to communicate with each other to discuss findings. You also need to be able to communicate your work to an audience via media such as conference talks and academic publications. Healthcare workers need to communicate with their patients to work out what they need… it’s all quite obvious. However, allow me to take this in a slightly different direction. One that may not be immediately obvious to everyone.
I was recently asked quite a good question. It was “what do you see as the biggest obstacle to the development of a diverse academic environment?”
Great question! And one answer immediately jumped into my head. Communication… you cannot have a diverse academic landscape if nobody can communicate with each other. It is perhaps the most important thing and let me explain why.
Firstly… what do we mean by a diverse academic landscape? It can mean multiple things including cultural and personal diversity. We’ll come back to these later but I want to start by talking about academic diversity.
Healthcare research usually involves trying to solve incredibly complex problems. Doing so requires a huge effort from a large number of people. Interestingly, if you look at historical scientific findings, many sources will have you think a single person (usually an old white man) was solely responsible for that discovery. This is rarely the case. Sadly, seldom do we hear of the vast network of researchers that contributed to that big breakthrough. These networks often spanned disciplines with people bringing a vast array of expertise. For research to be successful, we have to talk to each other and work together. We have to be able to communicate with one another.
If we don’t communicate effectively, there is increased risk of research becoming more isolated with groups focussing on one area and not having the platform to connect and collaborate with groups approaching the same problem from a different angle. Interdisciplinary research is arguably the most powerful but it can only thrive with active opportunities to connect people from a wide array of academic backgrounds. It is now more critical than ever to encourage academics to engage in discussions that cross academic disciplines to try and establish fruitful collaborations. Events such as academic conferences and workshops are now more valuable than ever as platforms for bringing together academics from a diverse portfolio of disciplines.
In order to further promote this, it is essential that we do our best to promote cultural and personal diversity in research. No more photos of one old white guy claiming all the credit for a big discovery please. And here’s the thing… once again communication is key.
I personally believe that a researcher cannot reach their full potential unless they feel comfortable with being 100% genuine to themselves. We’re a very diverse bunch. We can come from all manner of different backgrounds, hold vastly different beliefs, think differently to each other and feel differently to each other. No place was this more evident to me than the office within which I worked during my PhD.
We had people from all corners of the globe from a huge variety of cultural backgrounds. It was far from an office full of straight, white, British men. Everyone felt totally comfortable around each other and it made for a wonderful research environment. A huge reason for this was the fact we all communicated with each other. We learned about each person’s cultures and beliefs. We discussed, debated and chewed the fat daily. Everyone was happy to express who they were and it made for a culturally rich environment. On top of that, everyone brought their own set of expertise into the research environment.
It was also interesting to see how often casual conversations turned into discussions about data or ideas. If someone had an issue with their work, they had an audience of academic diversity to talk it over with. It sounds cliché, but it felt a bit like a family environment but without the arguments at Christmas dinner.
So what is the overall point I am trying to make here? It’s simple. Talk to each other. Communication in academia doesn’t just mean presenting your data at a conference (although this is important too). It also entails the conversations you have in the pub after, the discussions you have in the shared office or lab and the celebrations you share. You can’t find people to work with if you never speak to them! Communication is key and without it, research stumbles at every hurdle.
Dr Sam Moxon is a biomaterials scientist at the University of Manchester. His expertise falls on the interface between biology and engineering. His PhD focussed on regenerative medicine and he now works on trying to develop 3D bioprinting techniques with human stem cells, so that we better understand and treat degenerative diseases. Outside of the lab he hikes through the Lake District and is an expert on all things Disney.