Collaboration U

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Today, the most impactful science results when researchers collaborate across disciplines. And while single-researcher investigations generate important new knowledge and advance disciplines, other tasks, such as discovering a new material and moving it toward real-world application, producing a new biomedical device, or designing a more-efficient laser circuit, require teams of experts in multiple disciplines, from materials, physics, and applied mathematics to mechanical engineering, computer science, electrical engineering, chemistry, chemical engineering, and even the social sciences.

That kind of collaboration is a particular strength at UC Santa Barbara, where it has been hardwired into the culture, particularly in engineering and the sciences. It is the result of visionary efforts by chancellors, deans, and faculty, and has led to an institutional orientation that rewards collaboration, which, in turn, leads to better, more-comprehensive solutions and well-rounded graduates who become highly effective professionals.

In creating a materials department in 1987, then-dean Robert Mehrabian and first department chair, Anthony G. Evans, decided to give professors joint appointments, usually in two related departments, as a way to foster interdisciplinary interaction. Thirty years later, collaboration is practiced here to an extent that few other universities can match. Science wins. Engineering solutions win. Efficiency wins. Students and faculty win. The world wins.

“Many of the problems that we work on are complicated and require lots of different disciplines to make progress,” says Tresa Pollock, CoE associate dean and Alcoa Distinguished Professor of Materials. “We have always hired here with an eye to people who are interested in working on these multi-investigator programs, co-advising students, and taking on problems that require more than one department to be involved. Among all of us, we can put together approaches that we wouldn’t have taken individually.”

“Collaboration happens naturally here,” says Dean Rod Alferness. “We have scientists who care about the ‘so what?’ of things — the application and the impact. Our faculty tend to be more scientifically oriented than at many engineering programs, so there is constant collaboration among those who work on the fundamental science and those who see how to use it to generate engineering solutions.”

Like “sustainability,” “collaboration” has become a buzz word that is used a lot, often without much to back it up. “There’s a lot of talk about interdisciplinary and collaborative research at many universities, but here, it works better than anywhere I’ve been,” says Pierre Wiltzius, dean of the Division of Mathematical, Life and Physical Sciences. “It’s part of our institutional DNA.”

Physical proximity helps, too, he adds: “If you’re in the sciences or engineering at UC Santa Barbara, you’re never more than a five-minute walk from your collaborators. You run into each other all the time, and that has tremendous value in sparking serendipitous conversations. We are more like a village than a big city. People are less separated into their individual fiefdoms.”

Even as the National Science Foundation and other agencies increasingly fund collaborative teams, faculty in some places can be penalized for collaborating when they are up for promotions or tenure, on the assumption that they may have ridden the coattails of others.

“I’ve never heard that here,” says mechanical engineering professor Megan Valentine. “In fact, if you come up for tenure and you have not been working with other people and you’re not tapped into research centers but are this lone operator, there’s a question of what’s happened, why haven’t we engaged this person more deeply or more broadly. We don’t keep junior faculty in isolation to see what they can do. They get involved in large collaborations and assume leadership positions much earlier here.”

Further, young faculty trained in a non-collaborative style may have a narrower skill set and more constrained knowledge, and find themselves isolated from, and unwilling to share with, colleagues with whom they are competing for recognition and resources. At UCSB, facilities are shared, labs are shared, and, most importantly, ideas are openly and willingly shared. 

“Innovation is not a predictable progression,” says Chancellor Henry Yang. “It is an unpredictable process characterized by basic discoveries, experimentation, and adjustment, and the collaborative exchange of information, people, and resources is the hallmark of this process. I am very proud that UC Santa Barbara has developed a culture and an environment that supports highly interdisciplinary and highly collaborative research.”

“The barriers for collaboration here between traditional academic departments and disciplines are as low as they can be,” adds Wiltzius.

Big data is another factor driving collaboration, as, increasingly, the skills and knowledge of computer scientists, computer engineers, data analysts, and others outside such disciplines as the life sciences and earth science are needed to make use of enormous data in models that provide deeper understanding of complex problems.

Graduate students at work in the new BioEngineering lab, where faculty and students from various disciplines share facilities.

Graduate students at work in the new BioEngineering lab, where faculty and students from various disciplines share facilities.

“The most interesting solutions occur where disciplines meet,” says computer science professor Ambuj Singh. He is engaged in several projects that involve big data, among them one that has multiple PIs at several universities, to understand and support optimal group decision-making processes. (See The Long Reach of Big Data.)

Collaboration shows another face at UCSB’s many centers and institutes, which bring together researchers from diverse fields who share an interest in a specific area of endeavor, whether brain science, bioengineering, solid-state electronics, energy efficiency, or synthetic polymers. (See “Centered on Collaboration,” on page 23.)

The value of collaborating within and across disciplines shows up for  students, too. (See “Oh, to Be Young,” on page 15.) “The most important benefit of collaboration in my view is the effect on the education of students, who interact with multiple faculty and thus develop their own unique profile rather than being ‘clones’ of their advisors,” says Professor Carlos Levi, Mehrabian Chair in Materials. “Because we bridge the gap from science to technology, and industry is often part of these collaborations, students also benefit from the interaction with high-caliber industrial researchers and develop excellent communication skills.”

“What I find wonderful about UCSB is that, without agenda, without kind of knowing what something is going to lead to, it’s very easy to have conversations with people about things they’re doing and things you’re doing,” says mechanical engineering professor Matt Begley. “People are very willing to just have an open discussion about a problem, even if it isn’t their problem, even if it doesn’t obviously connect to what they’re doing, and at a lot of places, that’s not true.” 

In this issue of Convergence, we look into what collaboration is at UCSB — who does it, what forms it takes, what difference it makes, and, most important, why we should care. A good starting point is the notion, shared by several people who appear in the issue and summed up by Megan Valentine when she says, “The result of collaboration is never one plus one equals two; it’s more like one plus one equals seven.”