Saturday, 18 October 2014

Something Good This Way Passed: the Rise and Demise of a Research Partnership

On 20th March this year I wrote an extended e-mail to a select group of four fellow scientists. In it I outlined why I endorsed the view that we call a halt to our research partnership of almost two decades’ standing. It was an amicable – no, mutually affirming – parting of the ways. Indeed, we have since committed ourselves to an annual dinner in order to honour what we enjoyed together; the first of these takes place this week, and prompted this post. This is, like all my posts, a thoroughly personal reflection on what was, to my mind, an extraordinary partnership, although in this instance I have shared a draft of the text with my former partners so that any inadvertent errors might be addressed.

One might structure these reflections in any one of several alternate ways: perhaps using the oft-present effect of serendipity combined with the best in ‘personal chemistry’ to generate a dendritic image of our joint efforts. However, here, as is common elsewhere, the beginning is arguably a more reasonable place to start …

In the mid-’90s a colleague in my department, Mark Smith (who is now Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University), began a coffee-time conversation about some novel materials he’d been working on and asked whether my team’s expertise would be able to shed further light on them. Mark was, and is, an expert of world-standing in the use of solid state NMR (a distant cousin of the sort of NMR used in medical imaging) to unravel the atomic environment of key atoms in materials; my expertise is in the use of modern x-ray and neutron scattering methods (again, very distant relatives to the ubiquitous medical x-ray) to uncover the atomic-scale structure of amorphous solids and liquids. The materials at the heart of our exploratory conversation were sol-gel glasses, which are a form of porous, glassy solid made by chemical routes rather than by melting components together in a furnace; in this case titania-silica glasses.

For a little general science background to all this please take a look at an earlier post and at the short article I recently wrote for Laboratory News magazine. A talk on glass I gave a few years ago in Canterbury’s Heritage Museum is also available (here, on YouTube) if you want to learn more.

It became apparent very quickly that the complementarity of our approaches provided significant new potential: perhaps the whole would prove to be greater than the sum of its parts. It was. Our first jointly-authored paper, entitled “The role of titanium in TiO2:SiO2 sol-gels - an X-ray diffraction study” was published in 1996 in the Journal of Materials Chemistry (the abstract is here, and if you can use it, the DOI is 10.1039/JM9960600337). Our first joint research award, for a little over £230k, came a year later from the UK’s Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, EPSRC. Since then, there has been over £2½M in direct research funding into our work (with more than £1M into my own team for our contribution to this – and a lot more in the guise of access we have won to national/international neutron and x-ray research facilities: mostly here & here + here in the UK, and here & here in France). Much of this was earmarked for personnel of course: postdoctoral researcher salaries and PhD student support, but we also needed additional equipment, chemicals and so on – science research is not cheap. This financial input has enabled research leading to about 120 journal papers between two or more of the partners (~90 involving my own team), innumerable talks at conferences etc. and a lot of schools outreach and public engagement activity. Between them, these represent the more easily measurable outputs from any given research programme. Moreover, without the financial support we would not have been able to train and send out into the world the small army of successful PhD students and postdoctoral researchers that were drawn to the project; from my team at Kent alone no fewer than 15 chemists and physicists have been trained and equipped in this way since 1996 – all now making a positive contribution to society in their own right. Indeed, I must at this point make absolutely certain that I offer each and every one of my research team members over the years the sincere compliment of declaring that the chance to work with such enormously talented people represents one of my deepest professional joys. If you’re interested, there’s a great deal more in terms of detailed information here, including the minutes of our quarterly meetings – a focus of which were the short updates delivered by each and every one of our respective team members, turning our meetings into the very best sort of mini-conference.

I’m getting ahead of myself however: such summative information was never to be at the heart of this reflective post. Allow me to step back a little in order to introduce the other key players in our partnership, and to consider the type of research we sought to undertake – indeed, to pioneer. Keep in mind that all this arose from an initial chat over a hot drink (- most probably Earl Grey tea in my case). At this juncture I can’t help but highlight the value of the humble tea/coffee/lunch break in terms of fostering the new from the free-form coupling of creative minds. Prof. David Colquhoun FRS, a pharmacologist, encapsulated this truth rather well when he said (in one of his own blog posts, here) “failing to waste time drinking coffee with people who are cleverer than yourself can seriously damage your career (and your happiness)”. I think I’d relax this a little by taking out the bit about relative cleverness since, in the present context, it’s an ill-defined concept but otherwise it’s spot on; more than that, it became a characteristic of the partnership that eventually emerged.

What Mark and I started to weave, if you’ll forgive the metaphor, was a cloth which derived its strength from the warp and weft of two of the arguably most potent advanced probe methods available for the quantitative study of the atomic-scale structure of complex amorphous materials. Solid state (magic angle spinning) NMR on the one hand and neutron/x-ray scattering on the other each represent powerful approaches to the study of materials; put them together in a cogent fashion, often with the help of some computer modelling, and one is able to take a big step forward in terms of fundamental understanding. We found ourselves beginning to think along the lines of what we termed a ‘materials-centred’ research methodology in relation to our teams’ work. Broadly speaking, I’d describe this as an approach shaped and defined by what needed to be understood of these novel and usually ‘inscrutable’ glassy materials rather than determined or limited by the particular methods and techniques in which we individually possessed some expertise. We added rapidly to this through the realization that our own background as physicists imposed a limitation: we needed the insights that chemistry brings if we were to be able not only to unravel the structure of these materials but also to generate exciting new materials as well. That first jointly held research award, mentioned above, enabled us to recruit a superb chemist into our embryonic partnership (Dave Pickup – still a collaborator after more than 15 years I’m glad to say). I believe that moment marked our move from a multi-disciplinary collaboration into the deeper world of interdisciplinary research – wherein we strove not simply to derive new insights from the overlap of more than one technique or method but, rather, to synthesize a fresh and holistic way forward from the true merger of distinct creative approaches. To take my analogy further – probably to its limit, or further – we had begun to transform a decent cloth into something more evocative of a tapestry. (See here for an interesting recent article on the wider aspects of interdisciplinary research.)

Serendipity steps in at this stage, as so often is the case in life (- the ‘trick’ lies in being able to spot it and to exploit it). I went to a small conference in Nottingham which was primarily focused on the sol-gel glasses we’d been working on and was asked to be a judge in the poster session (- literally that: mostly early-stage researchers, PhD students etc., seeking to attract attention to their work via a large poster pinned to a display board; there’s often a prize for the best). There were a couple of dozen posters there as I recall, but one attracted my particular attention. As is my habit, whether as a judge or not, I asked a few questions of the PhD student standing next to it, Priya Saravanapavan. Her answer to one of these initiated a transformation in my research and provided a new focus to what was about to become a much-expanded research partnership. She was working on sol-gel glassy materials that were bioactive, which was new territory for me and so my questions were even more naïve than usual. In essence, if one gets it just right, these amazing chemically synthesized porous glasses dissolve harmlessly in body fluids (blood plasma, saliva and their like) in such a way that the body is ‘fooled’ into growing new living bone which directly replaces the glass – shape for shape. Thus, via a combination of straightforward chemical processes and the associated up-regulation of the right genes, one can, in principle, use these materials as a scaffold for the regeneration of bone. It’s not hard to see why this would catch the eye. The key element in these silicate glasses is calcium. Priya explained that, if it is released at the right rate, the formation of the mineral component to trabecular bone from elements like phosphorus etc. in body fluids is inevitable and that the cells which ‘organize’ this into bone, osteoblasts, can get to work. The obvious question for someone with my interests was therefore “Do you know why the calcium comes out as easily as that; where is it in the glass structure?” Well, to cut a long story short, this was not a part of her project and she therefore couldn't tell me … so, I got in touch with her supervisor (a ‘hero’ in the field, Larry Hench). Mark, by then at Warwick University, and I went to see him at Imperial College. After a seriously long conversation, in which he said he couldn't answer my question either, and rounded off with my first and only taste of Jonnie Walker Blue Label, our partnership had expanded to encompass bioactive glasses. (In passing, I looked this whisky up as I was drafting the post: a bottle costs upwards of about £150!)
Larry later retired and returned to his home in Florida, but the biomedical materials group continued to go from strength to strength in Imperial College’s Materials Department under the leadership of the oh-so-talented Julian Jones (see here). Julian’s role in the expanded research partnership proved itself to be of central importance in the following years.

Serendipity entered once more; on this occasion a couple of members of my team returned from a conference and told me that I ought to contact Jonathan Knowles at University College London (see here). Apparently, he was developing bioglasses based not on silicates but on phosphates, and doing so in the context of the Eastman Dental Institute – so a whole new realm of study might be on the horizon. Just as with Larry and then Julian at Imperial, so it was with Jonathan at UCL: my expectations were eclipsed by the reality, with the eventual result that almost the entire focus of my own team’s work, and major strand to Mark’s, would soon revolve around these two major classes of bioactive and bioresorbable glasses. Between them they had the potential to act as bone regeneration scaffolds, to help in dentistry (e.g. with porous tooth enamel: ‘sensitive teeth’), to provide antibacterial coatings, drug delivery systems, … It’s wonderful to be able to say that variants on these materials are indeed being deployed clinically, and that the potential for further development continues to expand.

Now, in all this my own contribution and I think that of Mark (see here) and his successor at Warwick, John Hanna (see here), has primarily derived from an abiding fascination with atomic arrangements in amorphous materials. Indeed, I am confident that analogous statements could be made about Julian and Jonathan (and the others who have, from time to time, joined us for a season within the adventure). However, what set this research partnership apart as far as I am concerned is the rapidity with which we all ‘gelled’ (sorry, obvious pun – I could have talked in terms of personal ‘chemistry’ I suppose …) and the degree to which we, all of us, were able to rely upon and to trust each other. In the process, we have each actively striven to learn the ‘language’ of the others and in so doing to expand the genuinely interdisciplinary approach to our work beyond the confines of merely adding some chemistry to physics. The openness required to achieve this has itself been inspiring to see in action, and the outputs and broader outcomes arising from it provide ample evidence that something good did indeed germinate, grow and flower. Indeed, a peer reviewer of one of our joint applications for research funding coined the epithet “dream team” as a summary of their assessment of us. And that’s the point really: by placing ourselves at the disposal of the others, by forging a genuine partnership rather than settling for a more traditional formal collaboration alone, there arose a whole that really did exceed the sum of its parts – by quite a margin.

The reason we have called time on the partnership is simply that, for a couple of years now, we have been unable to raise the funds required to carry on as a partnership. Although working in this symbiotic fashion brings enormous scientific benefits, there is a financial cost to it simply because we need the personnel to be funded across all the sites if we are to have the coherent flow of data required to fuel our research methodology. The intrinsic strength of the partnership lay in its interdisciplinarity: we covered the full range from fundamental studies at the atomic scale to the initial exploration of potential clinical application, but that necessarily made our projects complex. It is never ‘easy’ to get a research proposal funded – rightly so – but getting the broad spectrum of support needed to fund science across this range is exceptionally hard (even in more buoyant economic climates). Given the high levels of competition even for single-discipline proposals, all it takes is for one reviewer to say something, anything, less than wholly effusive and the entire application fails. This effect has been compounded in recent years by significant changes to the funding regimes; the outcome of this for us was ‘fatal’ with regards to sustaining the partnership. As a consequence, the individuals within it have necessarily and wisely evolved new research priorities and career directions – which will, I hope, prove to be as uplifting and satisfying as the years of the partnership itself. The fact that we have decided to celebrate the extraordinary season of our work together with an annual dinner, above and beyond the continuing ad hoc e-mails, tweets and so on, is testament to one other characteristic of the partnership that must be recorded: friendship. It is, I suspect, an uncommon thing for four independent and ambitious researchers to coalesce in the way we did: rarer still is that we became, and will remain, friends.

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