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Social science: Connecting with lab mates, peers, and colleagues

As if research weren’t challenging enough, wrought with numerous variables capable of slowing even the savviest scientists, there’s one ever-present aspect that often goes overlooked: socialization. Scientists in all fields will, at some point in their careers, spend countless hours working directly with or alongside colleagues they barely know, mingling at conferences, or collaborating with researchers at other labs.  

leslie Leslie Williams

These interpersonal dynamics can be daunting, as they juxtapose various combinations of undergraduate peers, junior and senior researchers, lab managers, and PIs. Proximity doesn’t automatically or easily forge connectivity, but, fortunately, there’s one thing that binds all scientists together and helps facilitate connections: curiosity.

Curiosity is what drives scientists. That thirst to answer questions thus far unanswerable unites the scientific community. The key to becoming a social scientist is leveraging this innate curiosity to create conversations and find common ground. Here are some potential icebreakers for inspiration as you collaborate, network, or simply look to connect on a humanized level:

  • What is your research about?
  • Do you have any exciting results so far?
  • What’s it like to do research in your group? Pros? Cons?
  • Where are you from? What led you here?
  • What were the toughest moments in your PhD work? How did you get started?
  • What are your long-term scientific plans?
  • Whose work interests you?
  • Have you read X?
  • Are you attending any conferences this year?
  • What emerging scientific trends excite you, in your field or otherwise?

But while learning about people generally makes work more pleasant and collaborative, it’s equally important to learn when people are open to such conversations. Socializing should enhance research, not hinder it. Don’t bombard a colleague while he’s counting cells or interrupt a PI while she’s writing a grant proposal. Try to read social cues and chat before/after lab meetings, during mutual coffee breaks, or even just plant a seed of interest in passing and let someone know you’d love to resume the conversation at their convenience.

After all, most socialites can’t be scientists, but all scientists can be social.

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Leslie Williams

Leslie Williams

Leslie studied neuroscience and conducted research at UCLA. She now works with labs to streamline workflows and save money.