Networks

An MIT student’s “summer” project at MacDiarmid shows researchers are collaborating more as the Institute grows.

Visiting researcher Virginia Nicholson is an undergraduate student in physics and maths at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She first visited New Zealand when she was 12 years old, and has been searching for a reason to return ever since. So when MacDiarmid Deputy Director Shaun Hendy responded to an out-of-the-blue email from her with the invitation to spend her summer term break working with him, she was thrilled.

Since she arrived in the country in June, Virginia — under Shaun’s guidance — has used visualisation software to analyse how networks involving MacDiarmid researchers are changing over time. She will eventually apply these techniques to each of the seven other Centres of Research Excellence (CoREs), as well as similar initiatives in Australia and Canada for comparison.

On her work station screen in a quaint, aging cottage on Victoria University’s Kelburn campus, Virginia pulls up image after image showing coloured circles linked in dense webs by lines of varying length. Most of the clusters that appear have several hubs, some involving dozens of researchers, while others show isolated triads and quadrilaterals scattered far from the centre of the main group.

The analysis is based on records of peer-reviewed publications. Virginia splits the data in two ways, first showing which researchers have co-authored papers together, then expanding the field to capture all citations of each other’s work.

Bright primary colours indicate MacDiarmid’s six research themes. When asked for her first impressions as to which of the teams is the best networked, Virginia says that Ben Ruck’s ‘Electronic and Optical Materials’ group jumps out, then smiles and adds, “but maybe that’s just because they’re red.”

Initial results from her analysis show that, overall, MacDiarmid researchers are well-connected to each other, and these linkages are increasing over time. Concern that some research teams would stay isolated seems misplaced: the main hub of the network connects all six themes.

In fact, the screen shows only one principal investigator who remained stubbornly independent despite years of involvement with the Institute. Even he was brought into the fold eventually when he co-authored a paper with a student who had linkages to the wider group.

“And that’s the whole point of CoRE funding,” Virginia says, “to make New Zealand a stronger science centre, though the population is small, by increasing networking between scientists.” Her research offers some tangible evidence that connecting researchers across the universities and Crown Research Institutes is achieving that goal.

Happily, her close study of the science system has not proved too close for comfort. She plans to return to New Zealand to continue doing science — theoretical physics, she hopes — once she graduates from MIT.