Speed dating - a method to ‘engineer’ interdisciplinarity

Everybody is talking about interdisciplinarity these days but how do we provoke it? In the current issue of the journal eLife, our HFSP funded Young Investigator team describes a computational speed-dating approach that we developed to purposely ‘engineer’ such interactions amongst participants in small scientific conferences which we successfully prototyped at a Royal Society Scientific Discussion Meeting, organized by means of our HFSP collaboration.

HFSP Young Investigator Grant holders Rafael Carazo-Salas, Attila Csikasz-Nagy and Masamitsu Sato and colleagues
authored on Thu, 13 February 2014

At scientific conferences, bigshot PIs and newly qualified PhDs might be standing next to each other without ever exchanging a word. The PI is inevitably caught up in talking to old colleagues, and the new PhD is afraid of asking a question in front of an audience of several hundred scientists. Yet how do you break those invisible barriers between senior and junior scientist or between theoretician and experimentalist, and start the crucial conversations that will lead to new collaborations and scientific breakthroughs?

We borrowed an idea from a very different field – speed dating.  However, instead of randomly matching people to each other, we collected information from the participants (who had previously collaborated with each other, what method each one was familiar with and what methods each one wanted to learn) and used that information to calculate optimal matches for everyone.

We organized two speed dating events, with five pairing rounds each. During the first event, we forced participant exposure to completely unknown techniques, that is without taking into account which techniques they would like to know about (i.e., the ‘knowledge distance’ between participants was maximized). In the second event, we paired participants based on the techniques they would like to know about (i.e., we established pairs that optimally matched the techniques sought with those known by the other participant, for all participants at once and in a way that was mutually beneficial for both pair members).

The result was, to our great surprise, a resounding success!  Out of the 40 original participants in our ‘trial’, 24 responded to the survey asking for feedback, 21 were very enthusiastic, and 12 mentioned that new collaborations had started as a consequence of the speed dating events. We anticipate that this could be a more general approach to provoke interdisciplinarity amongst groups of scientists or professionals and are eager to further explore this in the future.


A network approach to mixing delegates at meetings. Vaggi F, Schiavinotto T, Lawson JLD, Chessel A, Dodgson J, Geymonat M, Sato M, Carazo Salas RE, Csikász-Nagy A.  eLife 2014;3:e02273. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.02273.

Link to article