Collaboration in the Laboratory

I just came upon a blog on Benchfly.com that asked the question How Scientist Really get Trained?  They asked the readers to select from a list of resources including classes, journals, bosses, and lab mates/ colleagues. With 72% of the popular vote it was lab mates/ colleagues followed by: the internet 44%, PI/Boss 41%, journals 38%, product manuals 20%, classes 15%, textbooks 12%, conferences 10% and finally seminars with a popular vote of 5%. The results of this poll are parallel to what I have observed in my own profession as an Architect.

We call this type of learning “collaborative learning” – the grouping of peers for the purpose of achieving a learning objective where the success of the learning is the responsibility of those peers.  This poll can be corroborated by a recent survey by R&D magazine  and also in our own work where our clients are asking for collaborative work environments in the workplace, teaching labs and research labs.

Most of our clients request a collaborative lab environment since one of the most important knowledge sources available to that company is its employees and their intellect.  Collaborative spaces come in different types and sizes but they seem to fall into two different categories:  formal and informal.   The formal are enclosed conference and huddle spaces. The informal are where people tend to gather while doing a shared activity like getting coffee.  It is the Architects goal to find where these bump zones may exist in the work/research process and create an environment that promotes and enhances interaction. 

In order to achieve a collaborative environment we need to remove the physical as well as social barriers that impede collaboration.  TAKE DOWN THE WALLS, when appropriate. This fosters open communication and collegiality.

Possible ways to improve collaboration in the lab:

  • Remove as many walls as possible, creating an open lab environment.
  • Create lab neighborhoods centering on shared resources and spaces for collaboration.
  • Remove shelving between the modules. If you have three shelves remove one and adjust the remaining shelves so that there is an opening through to the other side at eye level. This will allow you to communicate with your bench mate.
  • Create destination spaces that people have to go to run a test or pick up supplies.  Some of these space could be:
    • Shared instrument spaces: Recently one of our clients stated that the instrument spaces build community and would be a nice place to discuss science while waiting for your results.  He went on to say these spaces would have to be different than the typical equipment pass thru and would need to be inviting and have white boards.
    • Create a mini one stop supply store for consumables.
    • Create glassware stores. Not everyone needs a 6L Erlenmeyer flask but there is that one time it would be nice to use one and, even better yet, it isn’t taking up space in your lab module.
  • Use places where there is natural light to create a collaboration zone.
  • Leverage technology to share research virtually.
  • Create a welcoming kitchen/coffee bar adjacent to the restrooms.
  • Create alcoves adjacent to the stairs for impromptu meetings.

 If the culture of the lab does not support collaboration then it doesn’t matter how nice the open lab and bump zones are; they won’t be used to their fullest potential.  The process of designing collaboration space starts with defining the behaviors of the scientist and building consensus with management at the beginning of the project. The design of collaboration spaces should not be left over spaces, but planned locations along the process that enhance communication.

 By implementing and embracing a collaborative learning culture will result in greater knowledge and greater research results.