One of the things I learned during my stay in another lab is that you can’t succeed completely by yourself. You can try, sure, but a relevant unanswered question in biology is a hard nut to crack. It usually takes a multidisciplinary approach and great ideas coming from more than one brain. Collaborations are key to overcome this issue.
Most of the times, what keeps you from collaborating with peer scientists is money. Money to travel and money to pay for your accommodation. Renting a room in the US can cost as much as your entire monthly wage in Spain. Time is another big factor. Traveling takes time. As a Ph.D. student though, my time is fully dedicated to research anyway, so that factor is negligible for me.
Collaborate or perish
When Kate McDole and colleagues published their paper (McDole et al., 2018) describing their innovative live imaging microscope, I thought, ‘That is a method I could use for my project’. However, in my research center, I don’t have the facilities nor the expertise to carry it out.
In Miguel Torres Lab, at the Spanish Center for Cardiovascular Research, I am using live imaging to study how the heart establishes its heterogeneous cell types during gastrulation and how mouse embryos manage to form a primitive tube that later on starts beating. However, our methodology does not support imaging live specimens for longer than 20h. Keller’s Lab, at Janelia Reseach Institute, managed to build a fast light-sheet microscope that adapts to the mouse embryo growth and optical properties, allowing its imaging throughout 48h at an unprecedented resolution.
A travel grant to make it happen
The Company of Biologists provided with the funds to cover my expenses, and so I was able to join Keller’s lab for 5 weeks. At Janelia, I found a welcoming and collaborative environment surrounded by cutting-edge facilities. Besides getting some precious datasets from their microscope, I learned how to analyze the vast amount of data generated by time-lapse acquisitions (they run for 48h and take 300 stacks every 4 minutes, do the math…). Learning to program in Python wasn’t in my plans but it ended up being the most valuable thing I learned during the stay. Programming was completely unknown to me before I did the stay, and now I don’t know what I would do without it. To be able to quantify the cell dynamics I am observing in the videos and extract meaningful information becomes way more efficient when one uses programming.
It’s true that a Skype call can help you work together with other scientists, but sometimes you need to be there to learn other techniques, bring up together a project or receive inputs from clear-eyed researchers. That, I think, makes a project more solid and likely to succeed in answering the proposed question. I strongly believe collaborations blossom science, and the role of these traveling fellowships is key to make them happen. At the end of the day, to get to your goal you need a team, and some members of that dream team might be in another part of the world.
If you want to know a bit more about my Ph.D. project, here’s a 4min video explaining it: