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Collaboration key, professionally and personally: Susannah Gal

Posted 10/11/17

I love making connections between people. It’s the euphoric feeling when you get to put pieces into a jigsaw puzzle where you’ve been trying to match color and shape with the bigger …

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Collaboration key, professionally and personally: Susannah Gal

cooperation teamwork
cooperation teamwork
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I love making connections between people. It’s the euphoric feeling when you get to put pieces into a jigsaw puzzle where you’ve been trying to match color and shape with the bigger image.

So it’s good that making connections between people is a part of my job as the associate dean of research and outreach at Penn State Harrisburg.

I wrote previously about what research for a faculty member is at a university. Research is usually discovering new knowledge about a specific topic, something that may have never been found previously. It can be a wonderful feeling for a person — be it faculty, student or staff member — to discover a completely new phenomenon or observation that no one has ever seen. Usually that comes after lots and lots of time while you are building up to that with your research work.

Research often involves other people. For me in my previous life as a faculty member in biology at Binghamton University, I had several students working for me at one time. Some were undergraduate students or others were graduate students getting a masters or doctorate degree.

I also played host to visiting faculty or students from other universities (one from Japan, others from Italy, Switzerland and Portugal) who wanted to learn from my approaches or use the materials I had in my research laboratory. 

I also worked in the laboratories of people in various parts of the world like in Switzerland and France, at Stanford University or at a cancer institute in Buffalo, New York. Gone are the days of the solitary scientist working away by themselves in some basement on their own. Or that’s pretty rare. My point is that often research is a collaborative or group endeavor.

I am now in a position to assist the research of other faculty on the Penn State Harrisburg campus. Sometimes I do that by helping faculty find potential partners or collaborators for their research. I find out what they need and then keep that in mind when I talk to people in different parts of campus or at different universities. 

It might be that one faculty really wants to do research using a specific instrument that they don’t have access to. Or maybe they want to do some type of analysis that they don’t know how to do yet, or it might be that they’d really like to expand their research into a different organism, or to a population of people with which they don’t have contacts yet. 

I might also find out about what someone else has available to them when I read something in the paper, or a notice in an email from the Penn State News. Or maybe I’ll hear a story on the radio or learn about a project when I’m talking with someone. Since I talk with faculty from all parts of the campus and across the university, this can happen in all kinds of ways. I get this great feeling when I can help a faculty make that connection and further their research.

My job also involves promoting faculty research by writing about their work for our research newsletters. These short two-page publications have images and short stories about research happening on campus. We get the information about the research from different parts of campus and then put them together in a way that most academics can appreciate the importance of the work. 

I distribute these research newsletters to visitors and our board of advisers so they can see the great research on our campus. If you want to see some of those newsletters, please check out our website (https://harrisburg.psu.edu/research/facts-figures). The research newsletters are at the bottom of the page. 

Books are a common way for faculty to show off their research. My office hosts a celebration of the books faculty publish on our campus. Last year we also celebrated a number of other things like the creation of a new font, and the writing of 1-minute plays. One Penn State faculty recently obtained a patent for his work developing a method to monitor the flow of blood in the body. At our book and creative work celebration, each author was given an opportunity to talk about their work, what made them explore that topic or follow that aspect of research. It was great to hear about the different ways that faculty decide what to investigate and how. If you’re interested, we will have our next celebration in mid-March and you are welcome to attend.

My office also coordinates an event in April when we celebrate all the different types of research on our campus. We have a celebration with posters of some student research, and we display all the grant awardees, talks given and those acknowledged at the book celebration mentioned above. 

We have two days of short talks in which students and faculty can describe their research for audience participants. We have longer talks by a faculty member who is being celebrated for the full compilation of their work and another by someone who can give their perspective on research and its bigger implications. 

Last year we had Simon Bronner, distinguished professor of American Studies and Folklore, giving a talk titled “Research in Analog and Digital Culture.” In April 2016, we had Doug Niedich, a Penn State graduate and electronic component developer, who is CEO of the local company Greenworks Development. 

When I worked at the National Science Foundation, I came to appreciate how collaborative research can often make major new discoveries. That federal agency (as do others) likes to support research that crosses disciplinary boundaries since that’s often the type of work that can make major substantive discoveries in a field. 

It can be hard to be successful in a research collaboration with faculty from other areas, since sometimes the two disciplines are not using the same language or feel the same things are worth studying. I remember working with a faculty in math for many years. He had some problems that were much easier for us to solve using the DNA methods that I was doing in my lab. Though we had very different purposes for the separate work we were doing, when we collaborated on our research, we could do so much more. 

I also collaborate personally — sometimes with my husband to play music like we did a few Sundays ago at St. Peter’s Kierch. We held a “collaborative” effort Saturday, Oct. 7 when we played host to an English Country dance at our house. 

If you missed that event, we are also playing host to an English dance from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18 and Dec. 16. We’re at 207 N. Spring St. and would love to have you. 

I’ve talked about this type of dance in previous columns. If you want a refresher, let me know. Please join us and see how the collaboration between music and dance can be a fun way to get some exercise and meet friends and neighbors. 

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.


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