Science can’t advance unless we communicate with each other

Round bottom flask

Source: © M-H Jeeves

It’s time to break through communication barriers in the lab

If the feeling of underappreciation was a living being, it would be a pigeon on a bike that hits you in the face in the middle of your joyful walk around the campus. As a young scholar, you start your journey with a heart full of hopes, your mind full of imaginary awards for your imaginary discoveries, and your pockets full of – well, never mind. You join a well-known laboratory, with the hope that this is going to give you the experience, the knowledge and the skill set you need to make those discoveries. Then one day, you feel confident enough to propose a new solution or a new idea – only to be pushed into the pit of ‘the way things have always been done’.

We struggle particularly when there’s a significant generation gap between student and professor. For over 2000 years, the older generation has characterised the younger generation as inactive, selfish and with high expectations. In response, the younger generation views the older generation as a hurdle, slowing down the swift transformation needed to ‘change the world’. This mindset erodes the trust between us and our advisors, making us – young and old – feel underappreciated for our dedication and hard work.

Sometimes, the stereotypes seem to fit. The resistance to change from senior academics means that new subjects and new methods are not always welcome and the students are blamed for the unresponsiveness of the old methods. I had times when this left me demotivated, questioning my skills and choices, while I saw my colleagues giving up on their research plans and changing their research focus.

Of course, we are able to negotiate with some of our academicians. I vividly remember working in an organic synthesis research group with a knowledgeable young colleague who wanted to work on catalysis. She went through a lot to convince our supervisor that she could significantly contribute to our research. At that time, our lab wasn’t known for working on catalysis and our professor favoured keeping everything as it was, insisting on staying true to the research that had proven to be fruitful for years. In the end, my colleague proved her knowledge and persisted in making a change. That year was a blessing for the group; now it is known for its contribution to catalysis research.

Only by acknowledging the communication divide can we make an effort to better understand each other

Speaking of negotiation, when we talk about the generation gap, a common issue that comes up right away is communication challenges. It’s unfair to blame other generations for not communicating and thinking in ways that align with our understanding. There are noticeable generational differences in the definition and the value of work–life balance, open communication, success, personal fulfilment, positive feedback and recognition. For the younger generation, success and job loyalty leans into personal fulfilment while getting recognition for work done plays a bigger role than it used to, as we are the children of the high-visibility digital era. On the other hand, the older generation tends to place greater emphasis on staying rooted in a single setting and accruing social titles, valuing these traditional markers of success over personal fulfilment. Only by acknowledging the communication divide can we all make an effort to better understand each other.

That means interacting with each other more. Some professors outsource communication and delegate mentorship to their older students. This usually results in a disconnect between professors and their research groups, ending in more communication problems.

Despite all the challenges, working in a well-established research group offers some significant advantages for students. We can benefit from the wisdom of the academicians who have been around for a long time, dedicating their lives to educating and inspiring new scientists. They have extensive networks that we can connect to, helping to develop our future careers. These research groups have an established structure and they are often better for the students who would love to follow a well-defined path in their academic plan.

In the end, I hope that all of us make an effort to recognise and acknowledge the importance of support and togetherness in the name of science and to make the most of our experiences by appreciating the benefit of different ways of thinking.

I believe that there are endless possibilities for discovery in the world of science. As a part of the scientific community, I will always remind myself that no matter how accomplished, my journey is just one step on the endless road of knowledge. Each of these steps should contain the beginning of something for other scientists to get inspired by. If given the chance to become an instructor, I would make sure that my experience can be used by my students to question the world around them. A day without wonder in the life of a young scientist is a missed opportunity for the whole community.