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"How I Collaborate"

Insights from FSU faculty on collaborating

Written by Evangeline Coker| PUBLISHED: February 16th, 2022

Over the past year, I have had the pleasure of interviewing some incredible faculty here at FSU on the Journeys in Research podcast. I started Journeys in Research with the goal of encouraging the greater FSU research community by sharing the individual journeys of our guest researchers.

Many of these interviews took place over Zoom during lockdown. While each guest’s story is unique, certain themes continue to emerge. One common theme has been collaboration. This theme takes on different forms depending on the guest’s discipline, status, and experience. Here I highlight three of our previous guests whose unique takes on collaboration will hopefully inspire you as much as they did me.

Episode Nine’s guest, Paul Marty, is the Associate Dean for Innovation in the College of Communication and Information and Professor in the School of Information. Marty is a fast talker with the excitement to match. We met over Zoom, and while I was still learning the ropes of online recording, he had been a pro for years. Information Science is a field with both feet in the technological future. It is by nature interdisciplinary, so collaboration comes naturally for him.

“The nice thing about being in an interdisciplinary field,” says Marty, “is that it gives you those connections that can help you stay at the cutting edge of research.” He speaks into a high-tech headset microphone. I’d say it’s the kind computer gamers wear, but given how cutting edge his field is, it’s more likely that gamers have been wearing Paul Marty headsets this whole time. 

The individual or the field that bridges those groups, even if it’s just a very weak bridge, even if it’s just a very weak tie, is often the most important thing in terms of coming up with new research ideas.

Paul Marty

“I feel like I’ve been fighting against academic silos my whole career.” Humanity has used physical silos to store everything from grain to missiles. Universities can be filled with their own silos, i.e., schools and departments, with each silo holding back its research and discoveries. “Academia is all about specialization,” Marty says. The pressure to obtain funding and publication can force researchers deeper into their silos. “We’re just arguing our way into obscurity …. I think it’s so important that we try to break down those silos [and] encourage more interdisciplinary research.” This interdisciplinary research requires a bridge.

For Marty, interdisciplinary research is a result of the “strength of weak ties,” a theory posited by sociologist Mark Granovetter. This theory states that within a system of siloed activities, there is strength in the person who can reach out from one silo to another. “The individual or the field that bridges those groups,” says Marty, “even if it’s just a very weak bridge, even if it’s just a very weak tie, is often the most important thing in terms of coming up with new research ideas.”

Research collaborations can take place in a lab, a local school, or a virtual meeting platform. For Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, our Episode Five guest, research collaborations happen on the dance floor. Zollar is the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance at FSU and is most widely known as the director and founder of the award-winning New York-based dance ensemble Urban Bush Women. Shortly after our interview, she was awarded the prestigious 2021 MacArthur Fellowship (aka “The MacArthur Genius Award”) for her work with Urban Bush Women.

​I had the pleasure of spending a quarantined afternoon in my office in Tallahassee Zooming with her while she was isolating in her New York apartment. In denim overalls, she walked the laptop over to her couch, where she could get comfortable. Pretty soon, we were chatting like old friends.

I look for a creative tension and synergy. You want the tension. That's a good thing. You want somebody who thinks differently or sees the world differently.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Coming from a family of jazz artists, Zollar loves jazz, and that background informs her collaborative process. Urban Bush Women is a “collaborative ensemble” guided by a director, much like how a band leader keeps the musicians in time and then steps back when the soloists come forward. Zollar’s goal in every collaboration is “to create a container for the genius in the room to arise.” She believes genius is always there; it just needs the space and security to come forward. So for her, everyone in the room is an equal collaborator in the creative process.

While Zollar is open to all voices in the room, she is very picky about who gets to enter that room. Discovering a new collaborator is like finding your soulmate,” says Zollar. She tests out a potential collaboration through a series of “artistic play dates,” so she can see how their creative processes mesh. “I look for a creative tension and synergy. You want the tension. That’s a good thing. You want somebody who thinks differently or sees the world differently.”

Our guest from Episode Four uses his platform as a center director to find collaborators. William G. Chase Professor of Psychology, Neil Charness is the Director of the Institute for Successful Longevity (ISL) at FSU. The ISL brings researchers together to make discoveries that can improve quality of life for aging populations.

 “Aging is kind of the poster child for multidisciplinary teams to solve,” he says with a big smile. Even over Zoom, his energy was palpable and inspiring. The prospect of cross-campus collaboration makes him genuinely enthusiastic. “Biology … social science, sociology, psychology of aging, motor performance, you name it, everybody has a little piece of the puzzle that they can provide.” Charness finds those puzzle pieces by sending out open calls and hosting interest meetings related to upcoming opportunities.

“Grants agencies are kind of leading the charge here by providing more funds for multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary grant opportunities.” Charness uses these grant opportunities as catalysts for getting teams together. When he hears about aging-related research opportunities, he spreads the word. “I say, okay, if anybody's interested in this, get back to us. And if at least two of you indicate interest, we'll put together a meeting to try to see if we can move this forward.”

Grants agencies are kind of leading the charge here by providing more funds for multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary grant opportunities.

Neil Charness

While Zollar looks for a synergy and tension in her collaborators, Charness looks for a diverse group of experience levels when curating an interdisciplinary team. He wants stability and risk. He wants experienced researchers because they “already have the presence in the field where they're going to be trusted by the reviewers to know what to do with money.” At the same time, he has seen early faculty be the biggest risk takers, a quality necessary in making the next big breakthrough, but they can’t do it alone. “They need the experience, the opportunity to work in a team environment.”

Many new collaborations need support to get the kind of traction to make them candidates for serious funding. At FSU, this support is available through seed funding and team-building programs.

The Institute for Successful Longevity offers Planning Grants for collaborative research projects. Applicants must be ISL Faculty Affiliates, and teams must have at least two different disciplines represented.

Seed funding for various types of research at the faculty level is offered by the Council on Research and Creativity (CRC), sponsored by FSU’s Office of Research. Four of the CRC’s programs are dedicated to “multidisciplinary work”: Arts & Humanities Program Enhancement Grant, Equipment & Infrastructure Enhancement Grant, Multidisciplinary Support Grant, and Planning Grant.

For those looking for a more intensive program that can expedite the collaboration process from meeting to applying for seed funding, there is the Office of Research Development’s Collaborative Collision program. Collaborative Collision offers collaborators a place to meet and discover shared interests at their Connector event. Marty affectionately calls Connector “speed-dating for researchers.” Following Connector, those who want to go deeper into the process can register for Incubator, a 10-week guided team-development process that prepares teams for a live, interactive research pitch event. The winners receive seed funding for a pilot study.

FSU is ready and primed with the resources and support to build bigger and better collaborations. Whatever your field of research, no matter how siloed it may be, I encourage you to take advantage of these resources and not be afraid to step outside of your silo and build a brand new research collaboration. When you’re ready for that next step, we’ll be there for you.

Contact: Evangeline Coker | Professional Development and Resource Specialist

Professional Development and Resource Specialist in the Office of Research Development, Evangeline prepares and coordinates workshops and events for faculty at FSU; she develops and disseminates grant writing and grant proposal development resources; she serves as a Collaborative Collision Incubator guide; and she is the host of ORD's podcast Journeys in Research.

Evangeline earned her MA in Theatre Studies at Florida State University, where she taught theatre courses as a teaching assistant. After her degree, she was an adjunct theatre instructor and writing tutor at Tallahassee Community College. She also founded a local performing arts non-profit, which she ran for five years.

During her undergraduate degree, she was a reporter and page designer for her campus newspaper The Bells.