Synchronicity is Not Just an Album by The Police. Nor is Serendipity Just a John Cusack movie.

2/1/10

The most incredible things happen when scientists with a common interest have an opportunity to simply talk with one another. On a bone-chilling December night, 50 Seattle researchers from more than 10 different institutions with dramatically different backgrounds gathered to share drinks and conversation about their work. They discovered surprising connections, initiated new collaborations and found that many of them were exploring similar problems. The first Global Health Dialogues took place. The outcome may be groundbreaking new approaches to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

Serendipity, where one randomly stumbles on something critically useful while looking for something else, and synchronicity, where important ideas are ‘in the air’ at the same time, are two important aspects of research that are not often discussed. Sometimes researchers just lack the final piece of the puzzle needed for success. Or perhaps they need to alter their perspective slightly to see a way around a problem. Or maybe several scientists, working on very similar topics, just happen to randomly connect, to synchronize, resulting in a large flow of information that often solves very difficult problems.

In many ways, synchronicity is a major aspect of the work being undertaken at such organizations as Infectious Disease Research Institute, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, PATH, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Labs, along with the major research universities in the state, UW and WSU. Their scientists may be researching different approaches to global health, but they often face similar hurdles getting a drug or therapy to the market.

But they are usually working inside their own silos, often unknowingly in parallel with other institutions. Scientific specialization creates increasingly narrow viewpoints separating researchers from others. Collaborations are critical but are hampered by these divisions.

One way to break silos and permit the flow of useful information is to exploit serendipity and synchronicity.

Let me provide some personal examples of this potent combination.

In an Xconomy article written in May, I showed, using only information that I could find online, that the Seattle area had more researchers with more funds working in more non-profit biomedical institutions than almost any other city in the U.S.

It turns out that this was an idea that was also being examined by others. A random suggestion with Curt Malloy, the head of IDRI, led me to Lisa Cohen at the Washington Global Health Alliance in June. WGHA works to expand the impact of the global health institutions here in Washington, in part, by connecting them and providing opportunities to share information. In an instance of synchronicity, WGHA was working on a mapping project to gather up-to-date information on the very subject I mentioned in my article—the financial and scientific reach of biomedical research institutions in this state.

They recently unveiled the results of this project. It demonstrates that not only are there a lot of people in this state working on global health but that the reach of their collaborations is immense—480 projects in 93 countries. Over 4,000 people are involved in these projects. The global reach of the Pacific Northwest research labs is astounding—even greater than I postulated in my article.

An interesting aspect of the process WGHA used to create this map was actually convening decision-makers from these institutions. During discussions, they discovered that sharing some of their core facilities, ranging from scientific equipment to animal facilities, would result in more efficient use. Not only would this save money and redundant effort but would also foster greater collaborations between groups dedicated to finding therapies for human disease. An unexpected result all because they simply happened to be in the same room, talking.

The combination of synchronicity and serendipity produced a result that was not expected. This happens all the time in science. In fact. scientists depend on these sorts of ‘random’ meetings in order to exchange information quickly, find ways to help one another and produce important scientific results. We have even gone so far as to create processes for combining synchronicity and serendipity to foster innovative research. We call them scientific conferences.

Researchers know the unheralded secret of these meetings—the conversations in the hallways or around tables at dinner are often the most significant reasons to attend, and lead to the most exciting collaborations. But why should we have to travel outside the state or the country to get together when we have such a rich array of talent within a few miles of each other?

This notion of informal conversations between scientists was on my mind when I met Lisa in June. We talked a lot about the huge amount of research being done in the Pacific Northwest. And about the barriers separating the scientists. These researchers were working on critical questions, yet few of them had the opportunity to exchange knowledge with other scientists here in Seattle. They would travel across the globe to talk in front of others but they had no place to connect in Seattle.

I suggested that we try to recreate the information transferring activities seen at conferences. Let’s bust the scientists out of their institutional silos and provide them a nice safe place to discuss whatever they wanted to. No lecture. No podium. No PowerPoint.

Along with WGHA members from SBRI, IDRI, ISB, and PATH, we designed the Global Health Dialogues. We sent out the initial invitations to anyone who worked at WGHA member organizations.. ‘Come and just talk.’ It didn’t matter whether they were graduate students, postdocs, senior scientists or CEOs. We welcomed them all.

And we had researchers at each of those levels in attendance. We hoped 25 people would sign up. More than 80 responded, which lead to the remarkable gathering in December.

Researchers sat around tables and shared their stories. The discussion at my table demonstrated the literal global reach of local researchers, with young scientists traveling to Delhi and Dubrovnik for conferences. I heard that the best therapies in the world will fail because we do not fully understand how to get people to properly use them. I observed the frustrations of having to deal with institutional inertia, both in the US and abroad. I listened to the excitement regarding new areas of research or of new pieces of equipment becoming available. I saw physicists talking with chemists about what biologists were doing to deal with sociological problems in Africa.

And this was at only one table.

A final point about serendipity and synchronicity. In October, while we were planning Global Health Dialogues, I attended an event that Xconomy organized about the 20-year outlook for biotech in Seattle. Stephen Friend, the founder and CEO of Sage BioNetworks, made an interesting observation about what Seattle lacks that other biotech hubs, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, possess. His one word answer, “Bars.”

After he gives a presentation there, everyone travels to a nearby spot to continue the discussion. People from other disciplines are there also. The random interchanges that take place can have huge impacts both inside and outside the lab. As Stephen said, “that’s really an important anchoring ingredient that we are missing, and should be happening.”

So, until Vulcan or somebody else can create the right bar—somewhere near Lake Union, with a really nice room for large groups to get together—the Global Health Dialogues will be available.

We are planning the next Global Health Dialogues for the end of February. We have a topic for discussion—the intersection of chronic infectious disease and cancer—for those that want some specific conversations, with lots of space for those who just want to talk. Registration will be open soon. Email info@wghalliance.org if you would like to participate.

It will again be a place to have a wonderful discussion with other researchers on almost any topic. I expect the dual team of synchronicity and serendipity will again make strong appearances.

Richard Gayle is the founder and president of SpreadingScience. Follow @

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  • http://www.robmacgregor.net Rob MacGregor

    Interesting article. I thought you might like to read this post from our synchronicity blog on scientific synchronicities. – Rob MacGregor

    http://ofscarabs.blogspot.com/2009/09/what-gas.html

  • Krassen Dimitrov

    Cool!
    The Lisa Cohen you mention will be here (Brisbane) on Thursday. After reading your article I am signing for a breakfast with her. Thanks!

  • Bill Neil

    Richard,

    Great stuff!f See you at the next ISB event.

    Bill

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