Developed by Rafael Carazo Salas of Cambridge University’s Department of Genetics and two Italian colleagues, the system relies on algorithms to match conference-goers according to pre-set criteria.
When they were funded by the Royal Society to run a small satellite conference on cell polarity, the researchers were determined to break the ice between scientists who did not know each other, and to encourage the big names to mix with the up and coming.
Keen to “avoid the usual pattern…of like sticking with like,” said Dr Carazo Salas, “we came up with an idea: what if we treated the delegates like we treat genes, and used mathematical algorithms to build a connectivity picture that could enable new links to be made?”
The forty delegates were asked to submit information in advance both about their own research interests and about the specialist areas that they wanted to know more about. After the first couple of talks, there was a “speed dating” round, where each was paired up for 10 minutes with four people with very different knowledge bases.
Even this created an immediate “buzz”, said Dr Carazo Salas, and “at the next set of talks questions came from all over the room, not just the usual couple of rows at the front”. A second “dating” round made even more direct use of the “wish lists” to bring together people with highly developed skills in a research method such as intravital imaging or microfluidics and those who wanted to learn about that method.
By the end of the conference, said Dr Carazo Salas, “the delegates had conversations that would never have happened normally, and many came away with new collaboration possibilities that will hopefully broaden out the field”.
The results of this pilot project have just been published in the open-access journal eLife. The team now hopes to fine tune its approach by trying it out at conferences of different sizes and in other disciplines.