A wealth of expertise in science

Materials World magazine
4 Jul 2016

Multidisciplinary research and integrated science collaborations are becoming unavoidable in developing scientific research. Natalie Daniels looks at some of the standout multidisciplinary projects of the past century.

Helen Keller once said, ‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.’ Often, research brings together experts from different backgrounds and disciplines to ensure better results. Networks of research collaborations are expanding in almost all regions across the world, and joint efforts have led to some of the world’s biggest discoveries.

Collaborations increase access to resources, funding, facilities and new ideas. It is often essential for major challenges in physics, materials science, the environment and biomedicine to be met by large, international teams supported by facilities and accessible data to encourage best practice and results. 

It is believed that collaborative papers tend to get cited more often – for example, those published jointly by British and American authors are cited on average more often than either country domestically. It has been reported that Harvard University, USA, gets better results from collaborative papers with the University of Cambridge, UK, in the journal Nature – the co-papers get more citations. The same is true for industrial collaboration – when the University of Oxford, UK, collaborates with GlaxoSmithKline, the papers are cited roughly four times as often as the world average for their field.

A good collaboration provides many benefits beyond citations. Other elements also play an important factor, including learning new work styles and approaches, improved quality or analysis of results, and strong connections to colleagues in the industry. Sharing your passions and working closely with others pursuing the same goals can provide an additional boost to work ethic and lead to better and quicker results.

1938 – The discovery of fission

Radiochemists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner alongside Fritz Strassmann, a German chemist, became the first to recognise that the uranium atom, when bombarded by neutrons, split into pieces (See Materials World, April 2016, page 62). They calculated the energy release from this fission at around 200 million electron volts. The trio confirmed this figure experimentally in January 1939.

1957 – The Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) theory of superconductivity

American physicists John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer formulated a theory of superconductivity in 1957, predicting the properties of superconductivity in metals. They proposed that electrons form a collective quantum state made up of pairs of electrons of opposite spin and momentum. This state, called a pair condensate, explained the superconducting properties and predicted new ones. The BCS theory has since been proved by numerous experiments in metals and alloys.

1985 – Buckyballs – the first nanoparticles discovered

A group of researchers from Rice University, USA, named Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Professor Sir Harold Kroto, from the University of Sussex, UK, began working together along with graduate students to further the field of nanotechnology. The discovery involved experiments using a cluster beam laser to vaporise a graphite rod in a helium atmosphere to produce carbon plasmas. The research was aimed at characterising unidentified interstellar matter. Mass spectrometry evidence from these experiments indicated that carbon molecules with C60 atoms were forming, with a spheroidal geometry. The structure was named after the architect Richard Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome structure, which resembles the C60 Buckminsterfullerene structure.

1995 – The first Bose–Einstein Condensate (BEC)

Eric Cornell, Carl Wieman, both American physicists, with German physicist Wolfgang Ketterle, trapped collections of around one million rubidium atoms in the condensed state with trap lifetimes up to 1,000 seconds. With the condensate, the team were able to demonstrate collective excitations of the atoms. A BEC is a phase of matter formed by bosons cooled to temperatures very near to absolute zero (0 Kelvin or -273.15oC). Since its discovery, BECs have been used – or proposed for use – to create atom circuits, rotation sensors, atom lasers and other devices. The group were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for their efforts in 2001.

2016 – First minimal synthetic bacterial cell designed

Researchers in the USA, from the J Craig Venter Institute and Synthetic Genomics created the first minimal synthetic bacterial cell, called JCI-syn3.0. Using a synthetic cell, Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0, developed by the team in 2010, JCVI-syn3.0 was created through a design, build, and test process using genes from JCVI-syn1.0. The new minimal synthetic cell contains 531,000 base pairs and just 473 genes, making it the smallest genome of any self-replicating organism. The team found ways to speed up the process of building cells from the bottom up. They developed new tools and semi-automated processes for genome synthesis, including more rapid, accurate, and robust methods for coverting oligonucleotides to chromosomes. Over the past 10 years, the collaboration between both groups has made the bacterial chromosome assembly go from impossible to possible.