How To Work With Other Scientists

What’s the best and worst thing about working with a biologist, chemist, physicist, mathematician and an engineer?

AsianScientist (Sep. 15, 2017) – In this modern collaborative science age, the days of the lone genius sitting in their lab are long gone. And it’s not just scientists of a particular field working together, we’re now in a cross-discipline era. That’s right, it’s no longer enough to be working in group of scientists—you’ve got to have a collection of different types!

Speaking for myself, we’re a team consisting of a biologist, chemist, physicist, mathematician and an engineer. Most of the time, it’s fantastic. Got a problem selecting the correct reagent for your experiment? Your friendly team chemist will sort that out for you! Other times it can be awkward—in a team discussion I (the only one with a biomedical background) asked whether a setting could be changed in an instrument only to be met with silence. This continued until the physicist and engineer told me I was asking them to break the laws of physics.

So I asked my teammates—what do you consider the best and worst aspects of working with other disciplines?


Why they’re the best:
Maybe it’s because they always had to worry about explosions since they always seemed to be working in the most antiquated of labs, but everyone noted that chemists are absolutely meticulous in their work. Sure, the old cowboy chemistry days of ‘let’s put these things together and see what happens!’ are pretty much gone (thank god), to be replaced by anal-retentive note-taking and observation to make sure they know how much more you need to get to the kaboom! Their meticulous approach to work often means they’re great amateur cooks. All those exact measurement abilities and paying attention to instructions!

Why they’re the worst:
The meticulous aspect can come at a price: once a chemist is set in their ways, it can be difficult to change their minds. My resident chemist also acknowledged that because chemistry studies often end up focussing on specific compounds, they found it difficult to know how and when to apply their (huge) body of knowledge until asked for a real-world application. Also, the cowboy days of chemistry aren’t completely gone—the chemistry building of his alma mater notoriously had a “X days since a fire” sign in the foyer.


Why they’re the best:
Make no bones about it; your average physicist is pretty good at thinking outside the box to solve problems. All that abstract thought will often result in insights that aren’t apparent to others. There were many times we’ve all sat together with data and gone “Something isn’t quite right here” and the physicist has said, “What we need is such and such to remove the variability and improve our understanding!” while the rest of us sat there and wondered how we didn’t see it earlier.

Why they’re the worst:
While they may be great at abstract thought, physicists can often lose sight of the initial goal. Also, maybe it’s specific to my team physicist, but he tends to over-think solutions, requiring the chemist and biologist to pull him back to earth.


Why they’re the best:
The main comment from the team was that biologists and biomedicals are all about practical applications and overall systems. If you’re telling them that factor A is supposed to change B in some way, they’ll expect the rest of the alphabet to reflect that change otherwise you do not pass go and do not collect $200. On the topic of money and practical applications, the physicist also mentioned that bio-people are great for teaming up on grants to give a reason for the project. After all, the physicist Roentgen may have discovered X-rays, but it’s the major use as a medical application is what kept that ball rolling for over a century.

Why they’re the worst:
Because they may have poor understanding of physics and engineering, bioscientists are great for testing if machines work. I am proud to say that when the engineer from the opening anecdote told me something had been designed to be ‘idiot-proof’, I pointed to myself and said, “You didn’t test it on THIS idiot!” and then promptly proved that it needed to be even simpler.


Why they’re the best:
These guys aren’t known as Mathemagicians for nothing!!! You need someone to help you trawl your data for gold? They’re the ones. Confused by programming MATLAB or R? They can do it! Ultimately, they’re the ones who know what to plug in where, make it automated and that’s how we’ll get push button science. They also make great companions for gambling.

Why they’re the worst:
Have you ever listened to mathematicians explain how their algorithms work? Also, don’t take them into the lab. Just…don’t.


Engineers are the masters of brevity and practicality. Whenever I need something done, he’ll figure it out in a jiffy. But the flipside is that when I asked him to participate in this, he replied, “I’m not a scientist, I’m not doing this.” So there you go.

This article is from a monthly column called The Sometimes Serious Scientist. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pexels.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff

Alice Ly is a postdoctoral researcher in Germany. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne, and has a BSc in Pathology (First Class Hons) and BA (Art History). She enjoys microscopy, cakes, photos of puppies, and removing warm items from the incubator.

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