This post comes from the beautiful campus of IISER, Pune where we are running the Newton-Bhabha Fund workshop this week. After travelling for 20 hours we arrived in darkness so this afternoon ( we were asleep all morning as the transition from UK to India time is in progress…) was our first chance to look around.  After a quick check of the training rooms we’ll be using later in the week (which are perfect) a few of the early arrivals took a wander around the campus and a conversation in one of the coffee bars prompted today’s post.

Cricket on campus at IISER, Pune. Photo by Sara

IISER, Pune is a campus based institute with accommodation so it’s reasonable to expect that there will be people around at the weekend, but we came for coffee in one of the academic buildings. We may return to the topic of working hours later in the week when I write up some reflections on the various facets of cultural difference which a workshop like ours will throw up.  Aside from this, what struck me was the contrast with an afternoon earlier in the week when I attempted to get a coffee on our Kings Buildings campus. There are a number of cafes but it took three attempts to find one which was willing to serve me at the totally unreasonable time of 3.45pm on a Tuesday. The restrictions on catering when the undergraduates leave reduce the opportunities to meet people from other schools and institutes either by chance or design.

I don’t have anything against departmental cafes. I “grew up” in one which had its own tea-room open for 2 hours a day. This restriction meant that during these times, the whole community mixed – students, researchers, academics, technicians and administrators. I still maintain that the loss of said tearoom was instrumental in the closure of that department some years later and it must have had a pretty instant impact on communication between different communities.

The common thread between these two reflections is that with a small investment of time and a dedicated space which isn’t someone’s office, it’s possible to have a different kind of conversation. Getting to know someone in broader terms than their research interests will help you make decisions about working with them (and in some cases the type of person they are can be a more important consideration than the skills they bring.)

The coffee room we found here was in a building shared by Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology and there were a number of groups chatting and working together. Our tea-time (chai-time?) conversation began with an inevitable winge about access to catering out of undergraduate term time, then overlapped with a chat about new university buildings and sites and the migration of departments to new locations. Both of these situations link to our theme this week because a lack of shared social space and the geographical isolation of part of a university’s community are both detrimental to developing new links and collaborations because they take away chances for us to gently get to know people who are different from us.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the programme for the workshop includes a lot of time where the attendees will be discussing ideas and developing possibilities. We’ve kept invited speakers to a minimum for a five day workshop and selected those who can also provide a mentoring role whilst they are with us. As well as allowing the participants to talk about their research interests, we’re also trying to create a relaxed and open atmosphere where more wide-reaching topics are covered. An initial decision to have an evening programme of formal activities is currently on hold – our hope is that we won’t need to nudge people into finding things to talk about and that our problem will be ensuring they get enough rest!

The projects that are likely to develop from the connections made this week will be complex and challenging. Success will depend on many factors, but those involved are only likely to commit to this challenge if they trust the people they’ll be working with. Building trust takes time. Isn’t just about complementary skills and experience, more about finding common ground whether in terms of interests, values or outlooks to life. These things can’t be expressed in a 2 minute introduction in the way people will describe their research at the start of the week. We need time and space to discover new people and then more time and space to decide if they are a good match and balance for us before we invest even more time and space in building links.

I’m not naïve about the complexity and tensions involved in estates planning and aren’t suggesting that decisions are made with the objective of undermining collaboration. Everything is a compromise in university management, but this week I’ve been aware that the seeds of future projects lie as much in the random conversation about university cafes that close at 3pm (and where that takes us) as they will in the conversations about whether your data and my methodology are complementary. When we meet for dinner later I suspect much of the chat will be about the journeys we’ve had here and what attracted us to the workshop and in listening to people’s stories we’ll start to get a sense of their attitudes to life.

Here are some facets of peoples’ outlooks which may emerge in these general ice-breaking chats.

Attitudes to risk – are you someone who always see the problems and potential disaster around every corner or do you generally accept that everything will be ok and even if it goes wrong you’ll probably work out a solution?

Attitudes to rules – is it all about doing things the right way with tried and tested procedures that are familiar, or getting to the right end point whilst not worrying too much about what path is taken?

Attitudes to other disciplines – are you interested in other topics and open to developing research ideas which are influenced by others (do you welcome trespassers?) or do you want to do more with your own research in partnerships where everyone has a defined roles (and doesn’t cross the fence)?

So, if you aren’t priviledged enough to come to a Newton Fund workshop (and a post later in the week will explore why people do), try to find a little time this week to talk to someone different and let them get to know you. My conversations in the last few months have brought me around the world. Where might yours take you?

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