Incubating synthesis: NESCent goes IRC, and you can join
As I noted earlier, one of the things we did differently this year for our Summer of Code participation is to maintain a presence on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) almost from the get-go. This not only proved useful for some of the students, but also inspired Brian O’Meara, one of our mentors who also happens to be a postdoc at NESCent, to propose a NESCent IRC channel as a means for our resident scientists (primarily postdocs) to stay in communication even when it’s not lunch break or teatime.
So here we are in #nescent on Freenode, and this week is declared as trial week to help everyone overcome the activation barrier and evaluate the utility for themselves. I’ve been very impressed by the willingness of almost everyone to follow along and give it a try. The first three days have seen some lively conversations, and even though some were on the light-hearted side (I guess I’m at fault here), some weren’t.
In my mind, the context of this goes much beyond an easy means for our resident scientists to ask each other for advice on commonly encountered situations. Compared to IM (such as iChat or AIM) and email, IRC is always on, it doesn’t need to be initiated. Questions can be tossed on the table, everyone will see them immediately, and it’s at the leisure of every user at which level, and at which point she wants to engage, or disengage. In some ways I see it like a virtual coffee table that you can join casually right on your desktop, without leaving or even disrupting your work.
At a journal club-turned-brainstorming session last week, several NESCent postdocs distilled the keys to synthetic science (the ‘S’ in NESCent stands for Synthesis, and is what is supposed to set NESCent most profoundly apart from a more traditional “research lab” in evolutionary biology). The keywords that stuck out (at least to me) centered around thinking across scales, interdisciplinary, reductionist, and integrative, in ways that are unfamiliar, using a common language.
Nurturing synthetic science along these attributes in my mind inevitably seems to greatly benefit from, or even require collaboration, the basis of which is scientists from different disciplines, working at different scales, in fields or viewpoints unfamiliar to each other, talking to each other and establishing a common language between them. That is, nurturing synthesis needs incubators, providing of which is I guess one of our main distinct roles.
Which leads me back to our new IRC channel: maybe it can become one of those incubators, and it could serve that way much beyond the physical walls of NESCent. It’s always on, requires relatively minimal effort to join (see a comparison of client software — for example, XChat works really well on Macs — and a list of basic commands; our channel is #nescent on Freenode), and for now is open to anyone in the world. So if you want to meet a bunch of really smart people who do amazing work in evolutionary research and have a lot of ideas about taking the field to new levels, here’s your chance to do so at your leisure. (And yes, I’m hanging out there, too, though so far I’ve mostly supplied the light-hearted side