In a unique test of the limits of collaboration, 15 SFI postdocs retreated to a home in the wooded foothills near Santa Fe recently for three days and three nights of intense scientific research.
Their goal: starting from scratch, produce novel, transdisciplinary results in just 72 hours. They called the event 72 Hours of Science, or 72h(S).
It’s something the participants say could happen only at SFI.
“It really was the sense of SFI’s willingness to take risks that made me feel like the idea would y and be worth the effort to try, and it was the amazing postdoc community that made me think we could be successful,” says Chris Kempes, who says the concept was inspired by the 48-Hour Film Project, in which filmmakers start with a genre, a line of dialogue, and a character and have 48 hours to produce and screen a short film.
The researchers began with even less: a set of ground rules describing how the team would collaborate. Individuals came with their own ideas for paper topics but were prohibited from discussing them widely prior to noon on Monday, April 4, when 72h(S) commenced.
Agreeing on a research question might have been the hardest part, says Caitlin Stern – finalizing the topic and organizing individual tasks took up much of the rest 24 hours, she says. An important objective was that the topic be of sufficient breadth to engage many of the disciplines represented by the postdocs – physics, math, anthropology, ecology, evolutionary biology, computer science, sociology, linguistics, and several other fields.
Then the team broke into groups to tackle various challenges, including a review of existing scientific literature to ensure that no one had previously attempted to answer the chosen question. Three teams worked to come up with computer models and algorithms that would help them study the problem. Others sought real-world evidence, analyzing available data to detect patterns. They came together periodically to compare notes and coordinate, and re-formed into new groups as needed.
“We approached the problem from a number of different angles, starting from different fields, and all came up independently with the same trends,” says Brendan Tracey. “That’s the most remarkable thing about the work to me.”
From the moment of topic selection, everything clicked, says Dan Larremore. “There was enormous camaraderie,” he says. “People were asking for more work when they finished something, and everyone had a very dynamic to-do list.”
SFI President David Krakauer stopped by on Day 2 with chocolate and bourbon and to offer words of encouragement.
A few minutes before noon on Thursday, April 7, the team posted their paper, “Dynamics of Beneficial Epidemics,” to the preprint server arxiv.org (arxiv.org/ abs/1604.02096.) The work still needs to be reviewed by their scientific peers, but the research is attracting attention both from scientists and the news media.
The postdocs say they’d do it again. “It was great fun, and it was also rewarding to be so many minds thinking about the same thing in totally different ways,” says Marion Dumas. “It brings a whole different perspective on what science is not about any individual being right or wrong, but about disciplined collective inquiry.”