Efficient Thinking in the Midst of Forced Collaboration

New labs have rows and rows of open labs to promote collaboration, but does it? Photo by Mason Posner.

New labs have rows and rows of open benches to promote collaboration, but does it? Photo by Mason Posner

Collaboration has its place in scientific research, and always will. It is impossible to fathom a world in which individual researchers will any more make groundbreaking discoveries without the input of other scientists, whether that contribution is material or intellectual. That being said, the transition toward collaborative working environments is not necessarily the path of least resistance toward furthering efficiency in scientific research output. The manifestation of open lab spaces, which is becoming an increasingly common and marketable sight in laboratory facilities at universities and companies alike, is a detrimental working environment for those researchers who need limited distractions to do their best work and thrive best in quiet spaces. Instead, a mix of open and closed spaces accessible to all researchers will improve scientific efficiency by catering to the preferences of all individuals, and indeed to the different environments any particular researcher might wish to place herself in throughout a given day.


If you Google “open lab space,” as I did in preparation for writing this article, you will be shown results largely in support of this design. Eight of the top 10 results are vehemently in support of open lab spaces, potentiating the likelihood that future lab spaces will also be designed in this way. These perspectives, however, are not provided by scientists—those who are ultimately forced to work in such setups—but are instead the thoughts of architects and designers promoting the merits of an open lab design from a theoretical or utilitarian perspective. The remaining two hits in the top 10 are pro and con lists debating the merits of open versus closed lab spaces, and do indeed cite scientists’ opinions. The list of cons is more extensive, and ranges from technical concerns (including security of reagents and data, storage of chemicals, and cross-contamination) to personal intrusions (the major concern of many scientists working in an open lab, and the focus of this piece).


Specifically, the concerns cited by researchers working in open lab spaces were related largely to interferences to their work by others sharing the space. Many complained about noise generated by laboratory equipment and other researchers as their top concern; others noted that they often felt as though they were constantly on display to their coworkers, and that they felt uncomfortable holding conversations, even about scientific topics, with so many others listening nearby. Finally, others cited guilt about taking a break from their work when surrounded by the implicit pressure of others continuing to work around them, as being amplified in an open lab. The efficiency of scientists with these concerns working in an open lab space decreases as they divert energy toward coping with their work environment in lieu of working on their projects. If these concerns exist in a closed lab, it is certainly on a smaller scale as the number of people working within the same space is drastically reduced and thus the amount of noise and distractions are as well.


All working spaces cannot be alike, because while the idea of increased collaboration through increased interactions with other researchers is tantalizing, the reality is that not all scientists are alike. The answer, however, is not as black and white as to say that open lab spaces are bad and closed lab spaces are good. Just as the transition to open lab spaces should not be happening as quickly and without as much oversight from laboratory personnel as it is, so is finding a balance between the two options a complicated—yet necessary—dilemma. To improve scientific efficiency, it is necessary to cater toward all personality types when it comes to developing an optimal working environment so that each individual can work at their prime. Some scientists think best when they are able to bounce ideas off of others and further develop their own ideas in response. Others require calm, quiet spaces to allow their thoughts to blossom. Thus, a mixture of open and closed spaces, allowing for interaction and collaboration or a private place to work, will permit scientists to choose to work in the space that will allow them to be at their most efficient.


Out of the four laboratory environments at three institutions in which I have worked thus far, my undergraduate research was carried out in a facility that I believe did the best job at trying to cater to a variety of personalities while still promoting a collaborative environment. The labs were closed; to promote collaboration, all labs shared glassware, with the glassware cabinets located in the hallway—making it necessary to leave the lab and occasionally walk around the floor to gather beakers and graduated cylinders. Alone this does not sound like much, but located next to each glassware cabinet was a whiteboard, allowing researchers who ran into each other in the hallway a space to quickly convene and share ideas. Though on the surface inconvenient, this setup catered toward a variety of personalities by pulling people out of the lab into a shared environment, but not necessarily for a long amount of time, and not permanently. Designs like this should be considered more broadly as an alternative to completely closed or completely open laboratories.


Collaboration certainly drives scientific efficiency by amplifying the spread of novel ideas, yet in day-to-day work the setup that promotes collaboration may hinder the efficiency of individual scientists. Thus, those with the power to push the transition to the trendier, more marketable open lab space should consider the desires of those who will ultimately work there to determine the optimal design for the space. Forming collaborations can be the goal of any scientist, but the need for more isolated spaces to perform independent work is not mitigated by that. Collaboration and independence are not mutually exclusive. There is a time for both and, as such, there needs to be a space for both as well.


This essay won third prize in COMPASS’s 2015 Writing Contest

About the Author:

Aliyah Weinstein is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studies cancer immunology in the laboratory of Dr. Walter Storkus. In the realm of science writing, she has previously been published on the NatureJobs blog, and also writes about grad student life on her own blog, Isn't That Grad (http://isntthatgrad.wordpress.com).​
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.