Friday, November 21, 2008

Collaboration with frustration

As a new faculty member I am tackling a group of organisms in my research that are somewhat new to me and asking some questions that combine the work I did as a post-doc and a PhD student. Little is known about these buggers, but what is known was almost entirely published by one individual. This person is still at a university, but not really active in research at this stage of their career. By all accounts, the person is very nice and easy to get along with but I have had an enormously frustrating experience dealing with them.
When I first decided on a system to work on as a faculty member I began writing the one person who knew more than anything about them. I never heard back. Four, maybe 5 emails over a two year period and nothing. Then, while writing a grant to pursue the work I ran across an old abstract from the same person's lab suggesting that there was unpublished data out there that would be extremely helpful to me. Again, I wrote. But this time it was different. I received an email back within an hour or two expressing an interest in working together to close out the project that desperately need to be finished up. Great, I thought, finally some contact and I will be able to ask all the questions that no one else knows the answer to. I wrote right back and got nothing. A week later, same story. A month later... etc. Now, 6 months later and a couple of emails (not stalker-level, by any means) gone by, I decided to step it up a notch because of the grant I am in the process of writing and because I am going collecting in a couple of weeks in the same place this person lives. What better time to sit and chat? The email I had received back had two number, an office # and a cell #. I started with the office, but the line goes direct to voicemail. I tried a few more times without leaving a message but never got anywhere. After a couple of days I got up the nerve to call the cell # and basically invade this person's personal space (on the advice of several senior colleagues and a former collaborator of the individual). I left a message on the cell, but the answering message gave a home number. Having already gone far enough to use the cell, I went "full Monty" and called the home number. No answer and I did not leave a message. Feeling creepy and hoping I had properly identified myself in my message, I followed that up with an email explaining when I will be in town and a bit more about the project. That was a week ago. No response.
So, when do I pull the plug and just accept that I am not going to hear back? Do I drop by this person's office when I am on the campus they work on? Thirty minutes of conversation would go a long way to helping me deal with some of the questions I need to answer very soon without re-inventing the wheel, but it seems obvious that the person is not interested in helping, despite their initial email. I am at a loss about what to do next, with only three weeks before my trip.


  1. Find out from the office staff when they are normally around, and then, the same day, drop in. Absolutely you should meet with this person -- they just sound like an ancient old coot -- this specimen of biologist often can lack tact, and sometimes, the ability to write an email.

  2. Keep in mind a couple of things. 1) Remember the lesson you learned when you found this job--keep at it and something good may come from it. If this is going to save you time/NRG/$ in the long run then the short term annoyance is well worth the effort. 2) This person is likely from a different generation. For some reason, whenever I move to a new academic setting, I become fast friends with the emeriti. It seems that they love to talk face-to-face and will tell you loads about their research--stuff that will be lost when they pass on. Point is, they're not too keen on new technologies. Not that they are Luddites, but more that they just are not adept or don't see the importance.
    I suspect if you physically track this person down and get them out for a coffee or beer, then you'll have your answers and maybe more! Good luck.

  3. How frustrating! I totally feel your pain. One thing to keep in mind is that this person is likely to be a reviewer for your grant. If for some reason he/she is not interested in your work, much better to find out face-to-face than passive aggressively through rejected grant proposals. You are invading personal space, but whatever - the line is absolutely fuzzy when it comes to personal/professional in science. At the end of the day, it will be worth your time to figure out what's going on so that you can get the scientific knowledge that you need, and so that you don't get caught in a passive-aggressive paper war over an email misunderstanding that may or may not exist.

  4. I think I'm going to do one more round of phone calls before just putting it off until the trip gets closer. I'll email the person the week before and then try to catch them in their office (good idea gnuma). If that doesn't work, what more can I do? I'm already setting up collaborations with others to shore up the weak points in the grant, and at least these people respond.