Collaboration as a Student

Returning to the collaboration with Jill, recall that it began in her classroom. It was an upper-level undergraduate course, but I put more time into it than I did most of my graduate classes that term. The class was deeply interesting; eventually, the subject matter would become the central scientific focus of my research. During class, I got to know Jill better by participating actively and attending office hours, both to ask clarification questions and to test out various epistemological inquiries I had about nanomaterials. I’d tried this technique with other professors of previous science classes with little success. While most of them thought the questions I had were thought-provoking, my queries did not ultimately impact their research, and so were not a productive way for them to spend their time.

For instance, before taking Jill’s class, I had taken a class with another chemist who worked on nanoscience, and I had asked him conceptual questions about the materials we studied. He was kind and engaged during his responses, but my questions never excited his curiosity. As an educator, he was invested in helping me learn, so he would think through a conceptual question and try to provide an answer, or indicate what factors would affect his answer, but he never took the questions and ran with them.

There are two lessons here. First, there will be more unsuccessful attempts at collaboration than successful ones. That is expected. Second, if you can find questions that are impactful to scientists, they are more likely to spend time thinking about them with you. Luckily, questions that are impactful to scientists are, in general, better questions to ask in philosophy of science anyway, so this strategy is effective—if you can figure out how to find impactful questions.

Unlike my previous attempts, askingjill conceptual questions about nanoscience turned out to be fascinating and productive for both of us. Some of this has to do with the nature of nanoscience, some with Jill, and some with me. Nanoscience is a young and developing discipline in which the ways of conceptualizing various material properties and behaviors are not yet deeply entrenched in the scientific community. So when I asked whether individual nanoparticles are molecules or not, the question did not have a clear answer—and the absence of a clear answer was interesting both scientifically and philosophically. It led Jill to conceptualize nanomaterials as occupying a neither-fish-nor-fowl space between molecules and crystals, which explained why tools from both molecular and crystal theory could be used to predict certain nanoscale material behaviors.

This exchange marked the first stage of our collaboration. Even while I was interacting with Jill as an instructor, she saw my research questions as valuable and interesting, and she wanted to work with me to solve them, rather than simply seeing them as someone else’s interests. With the other professor, the questions were always mine, and once he had provided as much information as he could, he dropped them. Jill held on to them, and in doing so gave me my first taste of what it was like to work with a scientist, rather than just read and write about science. It was thrilling, and it motivated me to think more deeply about the problems the questions were raising. This early interaction became the inspiration for my research career: I had found a subject area that sparked my curiosity, and a set of questions that an actual scientist cared about and wanted to solve with me. Jill’s participation stoked the flames of my dissertation.

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