Proximity rules

The writer is Research Director and Professor of Cancer Biology Jukka Westermarck

Because of Corona, virtual meetings have become an everyday routine for most of us, which is a great thing. I Personally, I have spent late evenings in pajamas on our living room couch listening and participating in live discussions with some of the greatest minds from the bioscience field. This all without having to leave home, suffering from jetlag, and paying thousands of euros for travel. Moreover, we have invited colleagues from Finland and abroad to join our journal club, or former lab member currently working as a post-doc abroad, to join our group meeting to comment on the ongoing work that is based on her important contributions as a PhD student. We also have learned to use other web-based tools such as Slack to clearly increase interactions and smoothen the share of information inside our own group. These are improvements we could have done years ago, but only now had to do due to the Corona situation.

Regardless of these great new avenues for scientific interactions, I am still a big proponent of proximity, and of unplanned bumping to each other when it comes to scientific communication. Sometimes it is those, half a sentences shouted from the doorway when passing your colleagues office, that are a start of discussions of common interests. Such discussions may lead to a shared grant application, and eventually, better and more influential science than either party could have achieved, or even imagined to achieve, by themselves. Not to even speak about your own research group and sharing of silent information about why something works when you do it with the left hand, or how this secret ingredient is crucial in this buffer, even though nobody quite understands why? Another great example directly related to our work is my first meeting with my currently closest international collaborator, Professor Goutham Narla from the University of Michigan. In 2014, after traveling about 30 hours to reach Nassau, Bahamas, I was listening to Goutham, who was, for the first time, invited as a speaker to a FASEB Phosphatase meeting. Through my jet-lagged eyes, I saw first evidence for small molecule reactivators of PP2A, the protein (complex) I had devoted my entire career. After his talk, we sat to a lobby couch, and based on that 15-minute discussion, between two absolute strangers, we have now built a fantastic collaboration relationship involving communications almost on a weekly basis, visits between Turku and Ann Arbor both ways, 3 collaboration publications (many more to come), shared DoD funding, and foremost a great friendship.

Proximity is therefore, in my opinion, a very important feature why traditional scientific meetings will be needed also in the future. This is regardless of how stupid it sounds that thousands of people travel across the globe just to be able to share the breakfast, meet each other on the coffee breaks, but foremost to be in the same location without distractions from their normal routines and fully-packed schedules. For the very same proximity reasons, also planning of research buildings is crucially important for scientific progress.  Scientists are the best to know what type of space solutions create the best opportunities for casual meetings and for an interchange of information between working groups. At the Biocity Turku campus, I do not recognize any building where this proximity issue would have been taken into account even half optimally. There is now an opportunity to plan ahead to improve the situation, as the rental agreement of the BioCity expires in 2026. When preparing for the restoration or, in the case, there will be an option of of a new Biocity 2 building as a new bioscience research center,  before proceeding to the actual planning phase, the opinions and input from the most experienced scientists on the campus must be taken seriously from the first to last phases of the planning of the building.

When this all is over (referring to the Corona situation), I hope things will not be the same they used to be. I hope we appreciate even more the chance to say good morning to our friends and colleagues when entering the work premises, and the chance to have a good laugh together over the coffee. At the same time, we certainly have learned how to use the virtual meeting opportunities better, and not only to shorten the distance between us and our foreign colleagues but hopefully also to make everyone´s working days more pleasant and effective even when organizing meetings inside the campus. Until then, take care of yourselves and those in your close proximity.

Picture by Hannah Busing on Unsplash.