Getting Out of My Comfort Zone

Interview with IdeaConnection Problem Solver Angela Hartsock
Angela Hartsock is a post-doc research associate at the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An environmental microbiologist, her work involves looking for ways to treat and reuse water associated with oil and gas drilling.

photo of Angela HartsockFirst of all could you just talk a little bit about your scientific background?

I guess the short story is that I had no exposure to microbiology and then I took a plant biology course and when we talked about associations between plants and microbes, especially between fungi and plants, that sort of sparked my interest in microbiology and then from there all of my degrees have been in microbiology and I still do it.

I entered the field when genome sequencing was really ramping up. Other sequence technologies were getting going and there just started to be, I think, more of an ability to find microbes in really interesting places. I still feel like we're in this really exciting time, especially with looking at symbiotic systems, human microbe symbiotic systems, things like that. And this is what motivates me, this idea that there's really a lot left to learn.

What were you looking for by signing up to an IdeaConnection challenge?

I guess initially I was just interested in trying something new because I had always been in academic environments and basic research environments. I wanted to try something new and force myself to get out of my comfort zone and interact with a group of people that I didn’t know previously on something that I was a stretch for my field of expertise. I guess all around I was just looking for the challenge.

What challenges have you worked on to date?

Actually, the challenge that we just won was my first challenge. Out of the group of us that worked on it, the Facilitator had done challenges previously and one other person had done challenges, but everybody else was new. The nature of the challenge was trying to address bacterial diseases in plants, either using chemical or genetics approaches.

How did the team arrive at a solution?

I think it was definitely an organic process. We were relatively familiar with the background science but the solutions we came up with sort of merged some different areas that initially we expected to stay very distinct. In the end we ended up having this cross-cutting solution.

You mentioned at the beginning that one of the things you looked for at IdeaConnection was to get out of your comfort zone, to be stretched and to be challenged, did you get that from this particular challenge?

I think for sure, yes. Like I said, I did pretty basic research. So just going from thinking about things in a basic way to a very applied way, that was a challenge. It was also a challenge, I think, to communicate. On the team we had a couple chemists and a couple biologists and we had to explain things to one another frequently. I guess it was a lot of interaction between the biologists and the chemists.

Then, the other challenging part of it, I think, was just learning to work with people that you didn't know previously. We all seemed to have different styles of working and different styles of communicating. But by the end, I felt good about the way we handled it and the way we ended up coming together.

How did the process become easier as you went along?

I think in a couple ways. In the first way, as it went along we started to naturally fall into different roles on the team and I think that helped. Initially as four team members, we were trying to split things equally into four, and then, I think, we would get kind of frustrated if two people held up their end of that bargain and two people were lackadaisical about it or maybe procrastinating a little bit. Whereas, eventually we ended up where we naturally fell into distinct roles.

There was one person that was doing more of the writing, and another person was doing more of the figures. Then one person seemed to be really good at the editing and structuring of the solution. In that sense I think that we just started to naturally fall into some different roles that maybe suited us best.
Also the Facilitator played a big part, especially toward the end by keeping us all accountable and reminding us of what we were trying to do and keeping the process moving forward.

Moving away from this specific team – I'm interested in whether you have any thoughts on the idea of using the crowd to do science. Do you feel that it has value?

I think that it does. One of the reasons I've been thinking about this recently is that, especially in biological sciences now, we have this massive database of published literature. But any one single person can really only mine so much of that data or literature on their own to get a background on their research topic or what they're trying to solve.

But I think that when you're applying so many minds to something you have a better chance of teasing out important trends or important themes in the data that can be extended into the future or that can have possibility for innovation. So I think in that sense, the crowdsourcing idea is good.

I think it's not just coming up with companies like IdeaConnection; it's also coming up in big research projects where they're trying to solve protein structures or even modelling evolution, things like that, where they can turn data into small games or small puzzles that can be distributed.

You know, do mass distribution and everybody is working on little parts but when it all comes back together a lot of work has been done. I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that things like IdeaConnection continue to evolve in the future into something that is more powerful than it is right now, but I think it's a good start.

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