Lab Report: Lessons from a Multi-Year Collaboration between Nanoscience and Philosophy of Science
In this chapter, I describe a successful ongoing collaboration between Dr. Jill Millstone, a nanochemist, and myself, a philosopher of science. Jill1 runs a laboratory' that creates new architectures of noble-metal nanomaterials and researches their fundamental properties and characteristics. I am involved in a research program focusing on the role of scale in material behavior and the varieties of inter-theory relations in the physical sciences. Our collaboration began in 2011 at the University of Pittsburgh, where Jill was then an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and I was a graduate student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. It has continued through Jill’s promotion to Associate Professor and my graduation and first years on the tenure track. Our collaboration has taken many forms, beginning with me, as a student, coming to Jill’s office hours and encompassing my participation in her weekly lab meetings, Jill’s service on my dissertation committee, our embarking on experimental joint outreach projects, and our co-authorship of essays for both scientific and philosophical audiences.
My aim in documenting this collaboration is not to present an instance of qualitative research on the phenomenon of collaboration nor a philosophical argument for collaboration as a preferred methodology in philosophy of science. Rather, what follows is a personal narrative of my collaboration with a chemistry laboratory as a graduate student in the history and philosophy of science—a discussion of how this unusual undertaking has informed my research career and of the set of lessons I have carried forward into other collaborations. My hope is that highlighting both the successes and failures of this collaboration will provide insight for other philosophers of science aiming to begin and sustain collaborations with scientists, and perhaps also for scientists aiming to collaborate with philosophers. Additionally, I hope that by presenting an account of a collaboration between laboratory scientists and a philosopher of science, I can introduce a complementary narrative to projects that have embedded sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and other researchers in science and technology studies (STS) in laboratories. The targets of the study and research methods I employed are distinct from those of laboratory-embedded humanists from other disciplines, such as Erik Fisher, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, and Sharon Traweek.
Originating the Collaboration
I met Jill when I was finishing my Ph.D. coursework in philosophy of science and was beginning to focus on the set of research questions that would comprise my dissertation. My main research interest was in the philosophy of chemistry, and my chemistry classes had led me to a series of questions about how chemists make sense of electronic behavior in metallic compounds too complex to be described by quantum mechanics. This domain posed some interesting challenges for philosophical theories of modeling, and, moreover, I just liked thinking about metals.2
My graduate program and my dissertation director, who was not in my department, were both supportive of students taking classes in science departments after basic in-house course requirements were met. This support was extremely helpful in developing my collaboration, as it allowed me to take the classes that led me to Jill’s classroom. So here is a quick first piece of advice: mentors should encourage graduate students to take classes outside their home departments when students have specific interests that cannot be accommodated within a department. At many institutions, administrative barriers can interfere with sharing students across departments, so the support of mentors in encouraging student interests and assisting with registration hurdles can change the course of research careers. It certainly did mine.
While studying the Fall 2011 course catalog, I came across a class titled “Atoms, Molecules, and Materials,” which focused on nanomaterials—a class of materials that encounter modeling challenges similar to the ones that excited me about the metallic compounds I had studied. I could not register without permission from the instructor, so I sent a request to register along with some basic background information about my experience and interests.
I received a very brief reply asking for a meeting. As a graduate student with little experience of communicating with professors outside my discipline, I read the brevity of the email as curtness. I know now that different disciplines have different norms for electronic communication, and I even discuss expectations for email communication when I’m setting up new collaborations. Here is a bit of highly anecdotal reporting: natural scientists rarely write emails longer than about a paragraph, and they find the multiple-long-paragraph structure of many humanists’ emails alienating. Some people tend to use bold, italic, and bullet points to highlight information, while others find it pedantic; these preferences have vague overlaps with disciplinary boundaries between the social and natural sciences. Pleasantries are optional and generally seen as a distraction, especially for faculty on the tenure track. Emails are more likely to get responses when they close with a direct request, either for information or a meeting, especially if the request comes with a (reasonable) deadline.
I was nervous about meeting Jill. I wanted to leave a good impression of myself and of philosophy of science. I consulted with colleagues about how to prepare, and I read her webpage and a few of her papers. Despite my best efforts, the meeting was awkward. It was scheduled in a conference room in a building I did not know well, with someone I had never met, and I was not prepared for how much that novelty would affect my composure. I stumbled and mumbled, started more sentences than I finished, and occasionally talked over Jill rudely.
I know now that there is a lot about initiating a collaboration that is inherently awkward, and I have learned to embrace the awkwardness, but at the time I was sure I had failed some kind of test. Jill was clearly very busy, did not want her time wasted, and was not at all sure whether talking to a philosopher of science would be a good use of her time. In order to tty' to convince her that I wasn’t wasting her time, I explained my background in chemistry and stumbled through a muddy introduction to philosophy of science. It ended up working, less because of me than because of Jill: she had a background in English as well as chemistry and took an interest in some of the technical vocabulary in philosophy of science. Our discussion of the word “epistemology” sold her on letting me into her course.