Money, Papers, and People: An interview with Ian Hancox and Luke Rochford

Ian Hancox and Luke Rochford are both PDRs in the Professor Tim Jones Group in Chemistry at the University of Warwick. They share their thoughts on collaboration in Science and their affinity with action heroes in spandex. Interview by Thomasin Bailey, PhD student in English & Comparative Literature.

Why is collaboration important?

IH: Well in sciences I think it’s essential because different groups have different techniques that you can access through collaborations. You can get much better work out, and to give a more complete picture of the research you’re doing.

LR: There’s a lot of localisation of techniques, expertise and people. It can be quite hard to break out of these small groups. The circles of the Venn diagram are very separated basically.

Talk about a collaborative project you have been involved in.

IH: We’ve recently published a paper where we’ve done a lot of work together. Luke did some photo-emission studies and I did a lot on cell characterisation and surface characterisation of some layers, and we also collaborated with Physics and they did some measurements that we didn’t have available ourselves, and it allowed us to get that work out.

LR: Although Ian’s expertise and mine are very different, working together was a natural thing. Reaching out to Physics and getting a formal collaboration, rather than just handing them a sample, was really, really useful. It’s something that has really enriched our experiments.

What are the benefits of working with others?

IH: Although you’ve got your own specialism, you can learn a lot from people like engineers, business people, about things you wouldn’t necessarily know otherwise, or even delve into. It can add a lot of value to your CV.

LR: Sometimes it’s nice just to be able to talk things over informally as well. You can have a chat over a coffee with someone who is a specialist in the area. This happened to me recently with one of the polymechanics at Warwick. We just had a beer and he’s given me a bit of a kick onto something that I just hadn’t considered. And that kind of stuff can be absolutely invaluable.

What are the pitfalls of collaborative work?

LR: Papers, money, and people are the things that people fall out about. It costs money to do science, and if you run a system as a collaborative endeavour, then it’s got to be paid for. As for papers, the old authorship argument: who’s at the end and who’s at the start? It can be such a thorny issue.

IH: You need to arrange all these things beforehand and be aware of what each person expects from the collaboration.

Do you ever fall out?

IH: All the time. Like a married couple! A couple of beers normally sorts that out though! There’s always a bit of friction when you’re in an office.

What is your favourite historical collaboration?

LR: The first one that springs to mind would be the Power Rangers – they combine their separate powers to create one larger, frankly less useful thing.

IH: I think Ghostbusters. They had a crazy scientist who did all the technology, they had an engineer, and they had the cool guy who actually managed to sell their product. So it’s across three disciplines.

LR: Outside of cartoons, I also think the two Braggs are very impressive. The only father and son duo to win a Nobel Prize. It must have been an interesting thing to collaborate with family ties involved. They were also very interesting guys, real gentlemen scientists, one of them was a fantastic artist.

Nowadays pupils in the UK wanting to take science at university have to make this choice quite early and filter out Arts subjects. Do you think this is a problem for science?

LR: I think it’s a ridiculous approach. I really do. Realistically you can be a fantastic Chemist at the same time as really enjoying Literature and Fine Art. If you look at some of the greatest scientists, going right back to Ancient Greece, they’re not just scientists, or even scientists as we define them.

IH: I can see the benefits of the A Level system. It’s difficult, because you want specialisation, but you also want breadth of knowledge. You want a well-rounded person. If you‘ve got no people skills and no knowledge of the world you can quite quickly alienate people.

How could a service like Piirus help you?

IH: It would allow us to quickly determine who is using which techniques. It took us a while to realise that the group in Physics had the equipment they had, whereas if we had used Piirus, it would have been much quicker to type in the term and find them.

What are you working on at the moment?

IH: I’m working on different layers of organic photovoltaic, making them more stable, and more efficient.

LR: I’m working on controlling the layer-by-layer growth of organic crystals on surfaces, with the hope of controlling their photo-physical and structural properties.

Next we’ve got some masters students starting who will be working on a connected project which will form a collaboration with the Diamond Synchrotron at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, which will be very exciting and a first for our group.”

So all in all, you’re a bit like a group of action heroes, because you make sure the roles are clearly defined, and together, you’re intending to save the world (by developing solar power).

IH: Yeah. Slowly.

LR: We wear a lot of spandex.