I should have titled this blog something snappy about ‘perfecting’ collaborations or ‘getting it right’ but, I’m 15 years into this academic gig and I can tell you it is tough as all get out to look from the outside and figure out if you are going to hit it big or wish you never met.

Being Batman Isn’t All Glam, Friends.

I thought I’d take the approach of three real stories from my assistant professor life. See if you can figure out what was a boon and what was a bust. If you get it right, my Dean Chancellor type boss person, will allow you to touch her fierce new flat top!*

Collaboration One: The Eager Beaver. While interviewing at BSD University, I met a bright MD/PhD student who happened to be from my hometown in New Hampshire. In fact, my mom was their elementary school principal. When I accepted the position at BSD University and set up my lab, the Eager Beaver sought me out and asked if they could try some of their compounds in cells I grew. Since there are only three people in the world from New Hampshire, I welcomed them to come play in my lab for a few weeks.

Collaboration Two: A Most Excited Chair! Chairperson scooped me

This tiny ball is the size of your cost of living raise. I’m sorry I had to break it to you like this.

up in the hall one day after hearing me talk and was very excited because they had a P30 grant going in with some of the best PIs on campus and my work would fit in perfectly. I was given 6 weeks to collect data and 2 weeks to write 1/2 of an Aim. The grant wasn’t far off my work but would involve new ways to think about large datasets and cover 20% of my salary. It would also give me a seat at the table with some heavy hitters.

It was a miserable 6 weeks. The person in charge of the ‘biology’ part of the grant was a eonacehcuod (I hope you can spell backwards!) and ripped my shiny new assistant professor squirrel bum a new hole in three group emails. The chair pulled me aside privately, apologized profusely but told me we were a sure thing for the money. Done! Grant submitted. Squirrel intestinal reconstruction surgery covered by HMO.

Collaboration Three: The Collegial Colleague. I saw a preprint of a paper in which Collegial Colleague’s work could be related to Alzheimer’s disease. We had some critters and models of that disease so I fired off an email saying if they needed some samples to validate their new drug/reagent/idea, I would be happy to provide them. Collegial colleague asks if I can help rework a grant to include my system and some data I had, and put me in for 10% effort. Collegial Colleague also needs help NOW because their application is due in 10 days (meep!). Several all nighters later, grant submitted.

So which was a boon and which was a bust?

The Eager Beaver: BOON! And because it was a boon I can put a name of my colleagues who made this a success. And that name is Ryan Gosling. I’m just kidding. Ryan and I would be off making LaLa Land only BETTER if we ever met.

Beam the lab up, Scottie! Erik’s a super genius but graphic arts is not his jam. I’ll regret this when I have Alzheimer’s and he’s the only one that can save me.

The actual name is Erik Musiek. Erik floated between my lab and Jason Morrow’s for the better part of three years and published a kajillion papers. Jason became my closest collaborator for six years with three very successful shared students until his unfortunate death. Thinking of these guys still makes me smile. Erik is now super famous, an assistant professor at Wash U and  the father of three daughters (OMG, I’m old AF). And now that I had to put a link to his lab’s website I can’t stop laughing because it looks like a bad SciFi artist designed the banner. Really. It’s a like a someone is teleporting a rave.

A Most Excited Chair! BUST! Total bust. Nightmarish grant writing experience translated into finding out that said eonacehcuod was widely reviled, prone to author-fights and had a serious case of meany-pants. Someone forgot to include me in that memo.

The Collegial Colleague. BOON! The grant got funded! BUST! The budget got cut at the beginning of the recession and, yeah, I got axed before I even got paid. Rather than tell me in real life, Collegial Colleague swerved right and sent an email letting me know I was kicked to the curb.

Here are your words of wisdom, folks….slow and steady wins the race. No. I don’t like those.
Here are my different words of wisdom, folks…have a kickass graduate student and you can conquer the world. Seriously. I would work with Erik over any of these other faculty members, center directors and whatnot any day of the week. Having a student who explored something they were excited about where the stakes were low was way more fun, productive and lucrative than any BSD who needed a quick answer. There are no quick answers.

Unless you do those scratch off lottery tickets. You can stop reading now. My Adderall has worn off. Oh, but while you are stuck with clearly nothing better to do with your time, you can read this advice from on authorship/collaborations from Kevin Strange, President of MDI Labs. My big claim to fame is that back when he was but a mere professor, I wrote a grant with him. Yay, me!

Pictured on left: Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, FiE.rCE. She does not want you to touch her hair but she looks like an adorable hedgehog, amirite?
*Until the end of February 2017 at which point, you take your life into your hands. And you don’t actually have her permission, just mine. And I actually wouldn’t recommend trying this but so few people read the fine print, I think I’m covered and can’t be fired. For this.

Anyone with helpful advice on things that have been a common thread in your best collaborations? SHARE, PLEASE?


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In my own experience, it’s nearly impossible to tell which collaborations are going to work out well in advance. I’ve  had some that were covered in warning signs work out swimmingly, and others that looked great going in fail just because the science (or the interest from reviewers) wasn’t there.

Thanks for chiming in, James. Glad to know that I’m not the only one who isn’t great at picking the winners. Oh that I were….

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