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The Keys to a Good Research Community

Friday, July 6, 2018, by J. Marcos Rodriguez
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     As an undergraduate researcher here at Harvard Forest my particular project involves sampling the smaller seedlings of the forest’s woody plants (trees and shrubs) within one of the station’s largest observational plots. In measuring these plants, my partner and I are working to not only provide a more complete picture of the distribution of woody plants, but also test unanswered questions in ecology. For me however, the actual “research project” is only half of what makes a good research program. In order to have a fulfilling program, it is also necessary to consider the community of people that one finds themselves in while doing their work.

     Despite the popular image of a mad-scientist working alone in a laboratory, science is not a discipline done in isolation and now more than ever, scientists are working together pooling knowledge and skills in order to accomplish tasks and answer questions (just look at the author counts on the newest scientific papers!). However, not all communities are conducive for an environment of collaboration and cooperation, and certain key characteristics are important in determining the overall quality of a research group. In my experience, there are three main components that a good research group possesses: diversity, mutual respect and camaraderie. And although they may seem trivial, each component is necessary in order to have a successful research group.

     Diversity in this kind of community is important in that it brings forth new ideas and allows people to explore and view issues through vastly different angles. This diversity can present itself in cultural as well as academic characteristics of the students, both of which are important to this type of program. Here in the Harvard Forest REU program, diversity in home institutions and academic fields creates a situation where individuals are encouraged to share what information they have learned from their own coursework and previous research experience, while differences in culture and personal identity allow a group to consider larger issues and concerns from entirely distinct perspectives. For example, one of the most notable differences I have found in this program students are their motivations for their work and in science as a whole. While some people are more motivated by pragmatic goals like reducing the human impact or working towards helping others, other individuals are driven more by an intellectual curiosity and deep desire to understand, and yet still others are motivated by a yearning for the outdoors and want to work on the things they find interesting. Each of these reasonings are valid and oftentimes people have some combination of these different perspectives, but in having a group of people with diverse motivations for their work (as well as other things) it is possible to consider many different options, challenges and consequences for the research at hand.

     Although it may sound cliché, mutual respect is another key component of any good community of researchers. Without a mutual respect for one another, it becomes much more difficult to work alongside one another as unnecessary conflicts can arise from even the most trivial of problems (eleven weeks on a research station with limited AC and cellphone reception can take its toll). This emphasis on mutual respect is especially notable when you are in a place with people varying in their perspectives, as values and goals will not always be the same. Mutual respect is the component that allows for different people to coexist in a constructive environment even if they disagree on certain issues. For without it, it would be impossible to accomplish anything efficiently and the scientific process would come to a halt as people become more concerned with petty problems as opposed to answering questions and solving the real issues related to their work.

[Photo taken by a kind stranger on 6/30.]

     Finally, camaraderie is also a key component of a community of researchers. Even a group of diverse and mutually respecting people need to connect on some level in order to have community to begin with. Having meaningful relationships with fellow researchers not only makes the task or research go by much more smoothly, but also more enjoyable. Without this sense of fellowship, an exciting research opportunity can quickly turn into a lonely and seemingly insurmountable task. In order to build a sense of community (and also out on the weekends) the researchers here at the forest frequently participate in a wide variety of group activities, trips and lively discussions. For example, during this past weekend several of my peers and I visited Amherst and the surrounding area to see the bridge of flowers, explore Amherst college’s natural history museum, eat good food and shop for used books (see image). And although this trip was not directly part of the research program in any meaningful way, it is excursions like this that encourage me personally to connect with my peers and view them more as friends rather than just as coworkers. These friendships are also useful during work, as it is these same people that I am willing to go out of my way for to help with their own research (even if it means staying up past midnight) as in connecting with them I now find myself vested in their projects’ success. Thus, it is my opinion that through the mutual encouragement and motivation that comes with a sense of camaraderie, a group of people can foster strong and lasting morale that makes the mountainous task of finishing a research program much more doable.

     Through camaraderie, mutual respect and a diversity of people and perspectives, an assemblage of researchers turns into an invaluable community. And although science is composed of a multitude of intelligent people, it is their collaboration, and sense of community that allows them to continue being the forefront in our quest for knowledge.


Marcos is a rising Junior at Brown University studying Biology: Ecology and Evolution.