Conferring Continues With Collaborations

The AMN6 Conference may just have finished, but the convenor for AMN7 already has planning well underway for the next meeting.
  MacDiarmid Institute Principal Investigator Dr Shane Telfer is looking forward to welcoming delegates to Nelson in February 2015, and is currently on the hunt for the high-profile keynote speakers that have proven a drawcard for the AMN conferences to date. “The tradition has been to have a Nobel Prize Winner,”
says Shane. Not only is there a certain prestige in having top scientists speaking, but their presence also tends to attract other researchers from further afield. It all helps encourage the development of the personal networks and interactions that underpin successful national and international collaborations. Shane found the AMN6 conference particularly good for him in terms of international connectivity. He was delighted to see registrations come in from CSIRO researchers working in his field with whom he hadn’t yet had a chance to meet. That was quickly resolved through attending their sessions and organising a couple of dinners together. “It was great to make a personal connection. We discussed possible collaborative projects and it’s opened up opportunities for me and my group already.” Shane is an Associate Professor in Massey University’s Institute of Fundamental Sciences and a PI in the MacDiarmid Institute’s Molecular Materials theme. He has plenty of international experience himself, having undertaken post-doc work in Tokyo, Montreal, Geneva, and more recently as Fulbright Scholar at UC Berkeley. While he still has some contacts with researchers and institutions from his post-doc days, Shane is keen to expand his professional network, recognising the difference that comes with being seen as an independent researcher, rather than as a student. Long term means looong term The CSIRO researchers, too, are relatively young in their careers, and Shane sees this as the likely start of a long-term working relationship. “Now I have that connection I can see it grow and blossom over the next twenty, twenty-five years.” Such longevity is not an uncommon thing in science, where contacts and research interests can span a working lifetime. Shane knows of one US scientist, Professor Mark Turnbull of Clark University, who has been sending crystals for analysis to the crystallographers at Canterbury for 20 odd years. “There would be diffraction labs closer to home [for him], but he continues to work with that relationship. There aren’t many other spheres where you’d see that length of collaboration happening.” Chats over cups of coffee really can spark fresh collaborations, new directions for research, or provide support for postgrad students. At AMN6 Shane talked with a materials chemist whose
work was complementary to his own, albeit heading in
a different direction. In another encounter, a young Kiwi researcher working in a similar area in the UK was keen to make connections back home. “It’s great to see a network growing…. that’s what these conferences are all about.” Conference benefits The formal presentations and poster sessions play a part too. Presentations provide a chance to learn about where research is heading. They spark ideas and interchange, and give attendees a chance to meet the faces behind the names familiar to them from publications. Conferences have the advantage of focusing the mind, free from the usual distractions of administration and day-to-day life, Shane says. He cites the Gordon Research Conferences in the US, which go a step further and virtually isolate attendees to encourage them to interact with each other. AMN7 is not likely to go that far, but Shane hopes the attractions of Nelson will encourage even more attendees at
the conference he’s organising. He knows that half the overseas attendees he spoke to at AMN6 were planning on travelling after the conference, some for recreation, others to various research institutes to develop contacts and build networks. Before the conference, the most common image of New Zealand for overseas attendees tended to be the mass marketing of the Lord of the Rings, New Zealand as a beautiful destination. After it, many have a new appreciation for the nature of the science being done here, much of it on a tight budget. Shane acknowledges that the New Zealand research scene tends to be small and under-resourced. While we can contribute in a unique way in some very highly specialised areas, New Zealand needs to have international collaborations to make up for a shortfall in expertise or equipment. This brings us the critical mass necessary for good, world-leading research. He’s quick to add that the support from the MacDiarmid Institute has meant New Zealand has been able to steadily build a profile of undertaking legitimate, weighty work. Domestic advantages While New Zealand may not be seen as the first port of call in international collaborations, meetings like the AMN conferences help to raise awareness of the research happening here. That can be just as useful at a domestic level, as Shane has seen the value of inter-institutional collaborations supported by the MacDiarmid Institute and others. “We’re almost one big faculty – so much more diverse, rather than being ‘siloed’ into just one institution.” One of the major advantages of being a MacDiarmid Institute PI is having an annual discretionary allocation for travel. It’s a far cry from the university’s requirement to have all travel justified in detail, and allows for the often-serendipitous nature of scientific encounters. Another benefit has been support for purchase of the specialised instrumentation vital for research. In 2008, the MacDiarmid Institute funded an X-ray diffractometer for Shane’s group, “It’s impossible to overstate the positive effect it’s had.”Not only has the facility assisted his own research group, but it has also served to develop and strengthen international bonds. When Mark Turnbull can’t get his crystals into Canterbury’s facility, he now turns to Shane’s group at Massey. Conference meetings and collaborations have seen researchers from Thailand and Egypt send in samples. Even the occasional cold call contact comes in – an Iranian researcher asked for assistance, apparently learning of the facility while reading one of Shane’s journal publications. Public outreach The outreach is not just to scientists, however. As part of the AMN6 conference, Nobel Prize Winner Professor Roald Hoffmann gave a well-attended public lecture and fielded a number of media interviews to talk about the role of science and art in nurturing creativity. There were enthusiastic tweets from his presentations, and even a request for an autograph. Art has been a topic at each of the last two conferences, with concurrent exhibitions of nanotechnology-inspired artworks, and Shane says that they plan to continue the trend in 2015. He sees public lectures and exhibitions as playing an important part in bringing science to the wider public. “The onus is on us as scientists to communicate and stimulate. Many people are genuinely interested – we tend to under-estimate the general level of interest in science.” Shane is also keen to have a prominent science communicator at AMN7 to push the message. He mentions writer/blogger Philip Ball, who has a degree in Chemistry from Oxford and a PhD in physics from Bristol University, or Deborah Blum, a professor of science journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s all part of the plan to stimulate, enthuse and engage a wider audience. Shane’s been involved in doing just that in other areas. As an initiator of the week-long annual Nanocamps, Shane has seen batches of enthusiastic Year 12 secondary school students juggling electron microscopes and nanoparticles. International students His own team of students represents a diverse group with post- docs or graduate students from distant places such as China, India, Iraq and Pakistan. Over the course of an academic career, many of them travel to international conferences or labs overseas – last year saw a number of them in Scotland, the US and Sweden. Shane says it’s often necessary to recruit from abroad – the relatively small student body at Massey couldn’t provide enough candidates to fill a busy research lab. He acknowledges that there are risks in taking on overseas students without having seen their undergraduate work, but believes the benefits are good. He dismisses the criticism of training another country’s researchers. “We reap the benefits from their hard work and dedication. It promotes us and stimulates us. For the amount we spend on them, the rewards are massive.”