On Informal Research Collaboration


This week on the plane trip to ARMS 2013 — the Australasian Research Management Association‘s annual conference — I came across this passage on the value of informal research collaboration in John Coates‘ award-winning book The Hour Between Dog And Wolf: Risk-Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust (London: Fourth Estate, 2012):


I came across a likely suspect purely by chance. During the later years of the dot.com era I was fortunate enough to observe some fascinating research being conducted in a neuroscience lab at Rockefeller University, a research institution hidden on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a friend, Linda Wilbrecht, was doing a Ph.D. I was not at Rockefeller in any formal capacity, but when the markets were slow I would jump in a taxi and run up to the lab to observe the experiments taking place, or to listen to afternoon lectures in Caspary Auditorium, a geodesic dome set in the middle of that vine-clad campus. Scientists in Linda’s lab were working on what is called ‘neurogenesis’, the growth of new neurons. Understanding neurogenesis is in some ways the Holy Grail of the brain sciences, for if neurologists could figure out how to regenerate neurons they could perhaps cure or reverse the damage of neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Many of the breakthroughs in the study of neurogenesis have taken place at Rockefeller. (pp. 20-21).


Wilbrecht now runs the Wilbrecht Laboratory at University of California, Berkeley. Coates’ exposure to Rockefeller University’s research environment deepened Coates’ perspective on the financial trading he oversaw at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. This experience likely also influenced Coates’ research program at Cambridge University on the interaction of human physiology and financial markets. The Wellcome Trust, the UK Financial Times, and others shortlisted Coates’ book for 2012 book awards. The Economist and Financial Times both praised Coates’ research. Informal research collaborations can lead to ‘ignition’ or ‘shaping’ experiences that develop researchers, and that combine insights from several domains: Wall Street trading and neuroscience research for Coates.