Together or rather alone

Monday, 9 May, 2022
Tags: News

Luca Wittner was a Ph.D. student at IEM, but has been working at the Inst Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology for several years. At the Univ of Pécs, we learned about the benefits of central units, while she teaches us about researcher-institution collaboration.

Luca Wittner was a Ph.D. student at IEM but has been working at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology for several years. At the Univ of Pécs, we learned about the benefits of central units, and she teaches us about researcher-institution collaboration.

It was a long time ago, in the nineties. We were traveling by train from Budapest to Szeged for a winter conference. There were only two of us in a small block of four seats, and the almost 3 hours to Szeged went by very quickly, although I was mostly just listening. Thanks to an unknown booking clerk, the person sitting opposite me and talking was the academic Miklós Palkovits. Among other things, he told me how to cooperate with someone. Few people become academics, but the topic is still relevant today, too. I would say it is even more topical. It may even determine whether someone becomes academic at all. Or, more importantly, whether they can achieve the discovery that requires only finding partners. Because doing research alone is even less possible today than it used to be.

We met Luca Wittner at the IBRO conference at the end of January, and after a mutual exchange on family-related issues, we very soon got to talking about ELKH IEM and her institute, the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology at the Centre for Natural Sciences (NRC).

- Why do we see you so rarely at IEM these days?

- Previously, there was a closer collaboration between our group and Zsófia Maglóczky in the human epilepsy line. This still exists today but is much less close, mostly limited to sharing human brain samples and patient data. The groups of Ferenc Mátyás and Péter Barthó from our institute also had a working relationship with Norbert Hájos/Attila Gulyás, Balázs Rózsa and László Acsády.
And Dániel Hiller's group still has an ongoing cooperation with Balázs Rózsa. Together with Áron Szepesi, they are designing and producing viral vectors for delivery into the nervous system.

- So there were three old ones, of which one remains, mostly for human brain samples, and only one more recent one. Are the projects over and no new joint ideas?

- Previous collaborations have resulted in articles, but such collaborations have now dwindled. True, much of the collaborative work that resulted in articles was in fact a continuation of the common past, of Ph.D. work, a continuation of specific projects. Such collaborations sometimes die down because different research groups go off in different directions, for which the previous collaboration may no longer be necessary. This is not a problem if the previous collaboration worked well because as soon as a new issue arises for which the collaboration of the respective parties could be useful again, this is likely to happen.

- The important thing is to maintain a good relationship! But I remember that it wasn't just joint projects like this that brought ex-IEM members like you to our institute.

- Another kind of cooperation - less close and not scientific - is the sharing of tools. There are quite a lot of aspects to consider when it comes to tool sharing.

- And what?

- When several groups or an institute need a specific large instrument, but not for intensive use, it is better to share instruments. However, if you need to use such an instrument a lot, it is better to buy your own. Not only because it is not really appropriate to reserve someone else's instrument for a long time, even if you pay an hourly rate for it. There is also the financial aspect. A large instrument is very expensive, and the cost of maintaining it is not negligible. However, if you have to use it a lot, your other appliance can cost a lot more! In addition, paying for such services is particularly difficult, as the vast majority of tenders do not allow you to spend money on the use of instruments. It is also possible that such costs may not have been included when the application was written.
It would be very helpful for the instrument use agreements to have the possibility to plan for such costs and to have a simple way to pay for them.

- Now how do you solve this problem?

- At the moment, you can pay for it by hiding it in overheads and salaries, or by outsourcing, but it's all quite complicated.

- What are the other arguments for having your own equipment and tools?

- Logistics. If you have to, you can take your sections/samples/data and go to an institute across town, but obviously, it's much easier to walk down a few floors and work there.

- Is anything else worth mentioning?

- It also doesn't matter what the attitude of the management of the host institution is. If you feel you are not welcome, you will only go there if you really have to. This also includes when they feel that I am taking time away from internal colleagues. This is not common, but I have encountered it.

- I remember when several of you used our Hitachi electron microscope regularly!

- Indeed I have. But we used not only the electron microscopes (TEM) but used ultramicrotomes, too. NRC also has a TEM, but there were problems with it. We were not able to take images of sufficient quality because the camera system was set up in a way that was not suitable for biological samples. Later on, the equipment did not work at all, so we had to use an electron microscope outside the house. The utilization of the TEMs at IEM is quite high, so we then established an instrument-use relationship with the University of Veterinary Medicine (Bence Rácz's group).

- They are much farther away from the NRC than we are!

- Fortunately, we no longer need to go to other institutes, because thanks to an infrastructure tender, the TEM at the NRC is now also suitable for testing biological samples. And we do not need the other, more modern electron microscopes at IEM at the moment, as our projects do not include questions that require these techniques. When we do, we could envisage establishing such a link.

- In other words, you do not need to collaborate with our institute for instrument use at the moment?

- This is not entirely true. We would need a good scanning microscope to examine both brightfield and fluorescent large sections. The coronal sections of the whole cat brain are huge (3x5 cm!) compared to our usual rodent sections, and it is impossible to "scan" them with the epifluorescence and confocal microscopes at the NRC. Until we have an in-house solution, scanning microscopy of these sections will have to be done out of the house. But we are working hard to ensure that this does not remain the case for long!
We could also use NeuroLucida from time to time, which we have used in the past. We don't need it very often for our current projects, so in this case, it's definitely easier to sign a tool-use agreement than to buy the apparatus. The same applies to the cryotome for frozen sections. There is one of these at the NRC, but it is rather old and not suitable for all tasks. We would not buy these two expensive instruments, it would be much better to work with them in other institutions.

- Not only at IEM but in all major research institutes, so-called central service units are being set up. Here, the researchers of the institute can use expensive large instruments which are centrally serviced and supervised, they are trained in their use, and it would not be worthwhile for any research group to buy the equipment because of its low utilization, even if there were no cost obstacle.

- The creation of a service unit for large instruments is a very good idea. It is also more efficient and economical to use the microscopes of the Light Microscopy Centre at IEM than to buy the same microscopes for each group.

- Why don't you have something similar at NRC?

- There could be an effort to do so at our place, but probably the reason for the lack of a similar central service unit is that we have many different instruments (1 confocal, 1 STED, 1 TEM, 1 SEM, 1 MR), but none of them have so many users that it is more economical. The instruments we need can be used by agreement between groups.

- So the golden rule is to do everything as it is better done.
But let's go back to the starting point, the question of cooperation. The more significant a discovery, the more likely it is that some kind of collaboration helped it. In your experience, how can you develop one that gives all participants what they have a right to expect from their work?

- I think good collaborations are those that are organized from the bottom up because in them the parties work together spontaneously and joyfully and effectively. The management of the institutions does not need to impose it, but it is a great help if they support it administratively. For example, if the institute facilitates the simple and quick administration and signing of the cooperation contract.
Even small things can contribute to successful cooperation. After conferences or thesis defenses, it can also be useful to have some time and space for the members of the research teams present to talk freely and get to know each other.

- And how to achieve mutual satisfaction between the collaborating parties? This is a very crucial question, it can be a sore point!

- Well, it is a good question. Open communication and trust are very important from the very beginning of a collaboration. People are happy to work with someone they can talk to about problems, someone they can trust to deliver the right quality of work on time. It is also important to define at the very beginning who has what to do in the project, what the common goal is, what needs to be done, and how, and when. The financial framework and the framework for future publications should also be laid down in advance so that no one is surprised at the end. The number of articles and the identity and order of authors should also be agreed upon in advance. It is true that these things may change in the meantime, but they should be discussed again.

- You sound like Professor Palkovits!

- As in all areas of life, open, honest communication is very important. It would be. . .
Unfortunately, I also have had unpleasant experiences, both in terms of job definition and article authorship. Although I have since paid more attention to this, unfortunately even this is not always a guarantee that something similar will not happen again. However, once I've had a bad experience with someone, I either try to change things for the better or, if that doesn't work, terminate the working relationship.