Collaborative research: Matches that are made in heaven

Academics find their perfect research partners at UCL's speed-dating
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The Independent Online

In this crazy, mixed-up world, it can be tough to find your perfect match. And academics have it tougher than most; it's not often they have the chance to get out of the library or the laboratory and go looking for Dr Right. But UCL have found a way to change that, a way to get single souls together in the same room and watch the magic happen. On 9 December, the university held its first speed-dating event, the difference being that the attendees were not lonely hearts looking for life partners, but solitary academics seeking out potential research colleagues.

Attracted by a tongue-in-cheek poster campaign on campus (slogans included "You only love me for my brain" and "Talk about the big bang on your first date"), around 100 academics from across the university's departmental spectrum attended the event, in the hope of generating interdisciplinary collaboration to enrich their research and thrust it in new directions. One of them was Joana Simones, a PhD student in UCL's geography department researching spatial epidemics, which, she explains, is "the study of the spread of infectious diseases in space"; bird flu being an example.

"My research involves mathematical modelling, and there were people there from the maths department who were able to help me with my methodology," says Simones. "There was another person working on epidemics from the environmental engineering department. I also spoke to people from medicine and biology, all of them interested in similar topics. It's very multidisciplinary subject matter, and it's rich with perspectives - there are lots of areas from which to approach it." Simones also "dated" academics from every level of the university hierarchy, from new PhD students to lecturers and research fellows. "It was a great opportunity to network," she says.

The event was the brainchild of collegiate cupid Jane Fenoulhet, UCL's dean of arts and humanities, and chair of the university's arts and humanities research board. "In the past I've tried to reach out to other faculties like maths and physical sciences by communicating with the top individuals in those departments," Fenoulhet explains. "But it's hard to maintain relationships with other faculties with that top-down approach. I always thought a grassroots approach was preferable. Interdisciplinarity has been recognised as desirable for many years, and I have often had overtures from other departments, saying 'this is our project, we'd like a humanities angle on it'. However, I think true interdisciplinarity is only possible if the projects are jointly conceived. The speed-dating event was a way of trying to achieve that."

Fenoulhet organised the evening with the help of Anthony Finkelstein, head of the department of computer science, whose IT expertise allowed them to use pink-hearted web registration forms to compile a database of their applicants' interests, and assess the potentially most successful couplings. "My personal favourite was the head of the gynaecological cancer research centre beginning an unexpected collaboration with UCL museums and collections," says Fenoulhet. "They're going to look at the potential beneficial effects of physical stimulation with museum objects on patient recovery times."

Oliver Hulme, a researcher from the department of anatomy and neurology, is studying the brain's relationship to consciousness - specifically neuroaesthetics, or how the brain responds to art, music and other cultural stimuli. He was able to explain responses to art to his dates from UCL's Slade school of art. "I was able to tell them the parts of the brain that were active when someone enjoys a piece of art, or finds it ugly," he says. "It's important to explain that art isn't a lofty cultural phenomenon; it's grounded in the biology of the brain, and enjoying art is a reward, like eating good food." Hulme also made useful contacts who could help his research. "I wanted to meet people with better technical abilities in maths, for example. I've since begun collaborating on a project with some people from the computer science department, so the event was very productive for me."

Interdisciplinarity is the research buzzword of the moment and the reason such events will meet with success, according to Clare Thomson, who also took part. Thomson is a research fellow connected to the UCL Mellon programme, a five-year project involving six fellows who work in interdisciplinary ways, looking at identities and culture in Europe. "I'm a bit sceptical about the idea that interdisciplinarity is something new," she says, "although I absolutely agree that it is essential to the functioning - in terms of teaching and research - of a contemporary university. I can't imagine how exciting research could be done from a monodisciplinary position."