Yesterday we had a colleague visiting the University across the street from mine. I know her from a couple of conferences before the visit. Still, I asked to have a time slot to chat with her. We had a nice exchange abut projects and results, and were able to find knowledge that we could share to help each other’s projects have a little bit of a boost. Heck, how I hope she will be hired (she was kind of interviewing for a position). Then I will have one of those colleagues I can chat with and, at the very least, get further inspiration and better angles to my projects, wider understanding of scientific projects elsewhere (she is very knowledgeable), and just keep enjoying so much being a scientist.
We chatted from about 11 am until a basket of sandwiches came (I spare you my complain that Canadians think that cold and flavourless sandwiches are “lunch”). Almost at the same time, the room got filled with graduate students coming to have “lunch” with our visitor. She started the conversation right-away. I stayed and participated. One of the issues mentioned was that of common spaces where to chat about science, share ideas, and such. She told us of her times as a grad student, and how marvellous it was that the institution promoted, by many means, the interactions, the “accidental” conversations among grad students, how that enriched her grad experience. I shared my own experience at the Institute of Biotechnology of the National University of Mexico, where, I was told by a friend, you learn by osmosis. Heck yes you do! While there are spaces to go, with couches and such, the environment was one of full-time discussion. You could be walking down a corridor and overhear a conversation. It would not matter if you knew them, or if one of them was a “big-shot,” if you heard something and you thought you had a better idea, you would turn around and join the discussion starting with something like “nope, I think this is this other way because of these and those results.” Arguing was passionate but, contrary to all appearances, rational. We could be red-faced arguing one side, suddenly note, from the contrary argumentation, that we were wrong, and just stop and admit “Oh, yes! You are right!” Now that is being a scientist.
We don’t have that everywhere. I have felt so orphaned here when it comes to arguing science. Rarely anybody challenges what I say (and somehow I doubt this to be due to my increased wisdom). Rarely I overhear any interesting scientific conversation. It happens, but it is not the norm. Anyway. Yesterday was a beautiful day filled with challenges to my ideas, challenges to other ideas … I thank our visitor (¡Gracias, gracias!).
We suggested the idea of common places for “chance encounters.” I suggested an espresso machine as “bait to lure people in.” I hope this happens. I know. That place is the University across the street. But an espresso machine would lure me in even if I had to walk that half an hour to get there. At least once or twice a week. More if students and profs start arguing passionately about science, about breaking paradigms, and we can start learning so much “by osmosis.”