Last week my research group moved to a new office – a lovely office for 6 – adjacent to the tea room – and with a move of building that will bring us closer to the animal scientists (cows and chickens) and agricultural economics modellers (whom I have found out use many of the same Bayesian techniques that we do) – though sadly moving us out of the building we share with our environmental science, veterinary science, and bioinformatics colleagues (it is only next door).
First, thanks go to our Head of School for listening to our concerns and facilitating the move. This move is very important for my group, and there is history to it, and important things to learn.
For the past 8 years, my group has been located in a very large open plan office, shared with very many other students and postdocs, the overwhelming majority of whom are laboratory based, and so use their desks on an occasional basis. This means that there are a lot of people, movement, distractions and noise. Even when the building was being planned, the computational biologists at the time (not my group – members of the Centre for Plant Integrative Biology – who were originally going to be in the space) raised their concerns that this would be a space in which they would be unable to work effectively. While their views were represented by a number of people – including myself – the University’s former Head of Estates was not prepared to listen to them or us – and insisted in creating the space as a very large open plan area.
My group moved in about 8 years ago, and since then, the majority of my PostDocs and PhD students have found it very difficult to work there – and so have worked away from the office. The situation at the moment is typical: of my current group, 3 out of 4 find it very difficult to work in the space, and so mainly work from home. The consequence is that my group rarely communicate (outside of formal meetings), do not benefit from informal peer support, from each other, or from other students/researchers, and this has had a noticeable impact on their well-being. Here is the key point:
Computational biologists have different needs from their offices from laboratory based researchers.
(i) Computational biologists are 100% desk based so have a different relationship with that working space from laboratory people who only use their desks occasionally
(ii) Computational biology desk work is mentally intense – writing computer code and algorithms – so needing intense concentration. A location with a lot of movement and noise (people coming in and out of their lab) is not one where we can work effectively.
(iii) Many computational biologists (myself included) are Highly Sensitive and Introverted (capital letters intended). This gives us our strengths – e.g. the abilities to write complex algorithms, or see patterns in large volumes of data, or work effectively across two or more disciplines – but also means that we are much more sensitive to movement, noise, distraction and large numbers of people than more ‘neurotypical’ people (whatever than means). Many computational biologists need quieter, calmer places to work (and rest), especially when we need to concentrate on what we do best.
I am extremely happy that our Head of School got this – but am somewhat surprised by the number of people who have responded negatively to the move and reasons for it. Another way to think about it is that laboratory scientists have very specific needs for the different types of laboratories they need (e.g. a microbiology lab has to have certain containment requirements to protect people from pathogens; a mass spectrometry lab needs a certain level of cleanliness to protect the samples etc), and research organizations are always willing to build research laboratory spaces to meet these needs. Well, computational biology labs also have requirements: for quiet concentration and connection, best met by smaller shared offices (we do need other people to talk to – just not too many at once!), with access to a common space for longer conversations – and these needs should be taken just as seriously.
When I went into our new group office last week, I saw two of my PhD students sitting at their new desks, screens full of code, and have never seen them look so happy!