Why a coffee room?

Coffee room is where researchers run into each other, new ideas and collaborations are born. All excellent places I have seen so far have their own coffee rooms. In his famous talk, “You and Your Research” [video, transcript], Richard Hamming speaks the following:

Another trait, it took me a while to notice. I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed [at Bell labs]. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.

Why a “coffee room” and a “public” university?

In the United States, there are major differences between public and private universities. While each institution has its own strengths and weaknesses, it is true that in general private schools carry more prestige. And while talents are everywhere, this prestige factor will influence, in a subtle way, the chances for your best students or post-docs to find a faculty position at, e.g., Harvard University. For the best public universities to compete with the Ivy League schools, we would need to try something radically different.

I ask: could co-mentorship by two or three PIs be a solution? You have an excellent post-doc candidate and she already has an offer from an empire lab in the east coast. Would it make a difference if you could offer, “If you were to come here, three of us would take care of you. Here everyone enjoys not only working hard but also helping each other. See our ‘coffee room’ culture, and how our former students and post-docs are doing now.”?

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In reality, what does it take to build a coffee room?

The whole process is something the vast majority of faculty, not to mention students and researchers, have little idea of. The bottom line is that it is very expensive and takes a long time. And it can be a lonely mission.

It is best not to go into the countless problems I documented during the process, except that virtually all issues boil down to a single, poisonous keyword – ‘liability.’ Based on my experience, fear of liability is particularly pertinent to understanding the inner workings of public universities and beyond in the US.

Coffee room with an “open door” and the positive outlook

The good news is that the coffee room is finally open in December 2015 after this long process that continued for 2 years and 4 months,  and it has become immediately and immensely popular. Our coffee “room” is completely open, has no walls, and welcomes anyone who wants to interact (see below).

I am now looking forward to the first paper born out of the espresso-inspired interactions in our department.

Before:
After:coffee room without walls.png

mailroom.png

To a waverer
You say:
Things are going bad for us.
Darkness is enveloping. Strength is waning.
After working so many years
We are now in a more difficult situation than when we began.

And the enemy stands before us, more powerful than ever.
His powers seem to have grown.
He has taken on an appearance of invincibility.
And we have made mistakes;  we can’t deny it.
Our numbers are dwindling.
Our words are in disarray. The enemy has taken our words and twisted
Them into something unrecognizable.

What is wrong in what we have said:
Something, or everything?
Whom do we still count on? Are we just survivors,
Carried by the current? Do we remain behind
Understanding no one and understood by no one?

Do we need to rely on good fortune?

This  you ask. Expect no answer
but your own.

—Bertolt Brecht
1935