How joining two COST Actions changed the way I think about research

How joining two COST Actions changed the way I think about research

Recently, I was asked several times what is the COST programme about and if it is worth considering at all. This is not a difficult question to answer. I joined two COST Actions and it influenced the way I understand scientific networking and research collaboration.

Everything started in 2016. Together with Agnieszka, the PhD student that I co-supervise, we established collaboration with the ILK-Dresden. We learned that they are involved in something called COST Action.  Few months later, we were flying to Spain for the NANOUPTAKE Management Committee meeting and the first Training School. It was just the beginning of collaboration that resulted in research, internship, more training schools, conferences, and joined papers…

Well then, what is the COST?

Chances are that being a researcher in a European country you have already heard about the COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology). It is an EU-funded programme that helps to build and facilitate research and innovations networks. It is said that COST is Europe’s longest-running intergovernmental framework, as It was founded in 1971. Long before The Maastricht Treaty and establishment of the European Union as we know it today.

The networks funded by the COST Programme are called Actions, and there is a good reason for that. Networks often sit passively waiting for something to happen. Like a club that you join to be able to reach your colleagues only if necessary. COST Actions are more dynamic. People meet regularly and work together. They communicate, share knowledge, and solve problems… The COST (short from COST Programme) provides funds for all that networking activities: conferences, meetings, training schools, short scientific exchanges or other networking activities.

Joining the Action

So, what does it mean joining the COST Action? Well, I am currently a member of two. Both are huge and their aims are spectacular. Their topics are very different though, and my involvement is each of them is different as well.

The NANOUPTAKE aims to create a Europe-wide network of leading R+D+i institutions, and of key industries, to develop and foster the use of nanofluids as advanced heat transfer/thermal storage materials to increase the efficiency of heat exchange and storage systems. The members of NANOUPTAKE focus their research on various types of  nanofluids. Our own contributions are about properties of graphene oxide nanoparticles. We were able to observe some interesting things happening in a thermosyphon filled with this nanofluid. Research paper is underway. I will write more about it in a separate blog post after it is published.

The RESTORE (REthinking Sustainability TOwards a Regenerative Economy) is very different. Its goal is to affect a paradigm shift towards restorative sustainability for new and existing buildings across Europe. Here, a huge group of interdisciplinary researches is working on principles behind Restorative Sustainability, Processes, Methods and Tools for and Restorative Designs, and more. During the kick-off meeting, I volunteered to serve as a Science Communication Officer. It turned out to be a learning opportunity and, at the same time, a challenging adventure!

While being a contributor, you don’t have to change anything in your research activities. Well, almost… You can continue the research the same way as you’ve always done. The difference is that your work is now a part of a larger goal. As there is an audience to share knowledge and people to collaborate with, you will see your own research in a different way. You may suddenly find larger purpose!

This is a EU-funded project, which means that there are many rules to be followed. The structure of the COST Action, administrative procedures, reimbursements… everything is precisely explained in multiple documents at cost.eu website. For example, this is how you join an existing COST Action.

Being a part of the COST network can be leveraged in many ways. For example, you can use it to build consortium for H2020 grant. You can develop your PhD students by sending them to other institutions or laboratories for Short Term Scientific Mission (STSM). You can sent them for a dedicated Training School (all Actions organize specialized trainings), or perhaps some conference. All that can be funded from the budget of the Action (there are some limitations though).

Participation in the COST not only widened my horizons, but allowed me to meet incredible people from many countries. The experience is great, so I strongly encourage you to consider joining the Action and try yourself!

Three things I learned during my stay at Stanford University

Three things I learned during my stay at Stanford University

Few years ago, I spent two months on certified training at Stanford University. I was a member of a larger group in the Top 500 Innovators Programme organised by Ministry of Science and Higher Education. We were sent to California to learn research commercialisation from the world’s best. We looked into forces and principles that stimulate cooperation between academics and business environments, hoping to implement the best practices back in Poland. Our goal was to absorb as much as possible and bring back the knowledge, but also the motivation and the spirit.

Looking back at the time I spent at Stanford University it was one of the greatest periods of my life. The place and the people that I shared this experience with, they left permanent mark and change me in several ways. For now, I want to tell you about three lessons…

Environment matters

One thing that surprised me was how quickly our group started to run at “Silicon Valley speed”. Scholars from Poland, taught and trained in the Central European country, we adapted to the Stanford way of work surprisingly fast. Very soon the new norm was long intensive study hours, followed by overnighters fueled by dozens of coffees and energy drinks.

It is not that all of us suddenly become productivity monsters. It was the place that demanded so much that we had no choice but to put extra hours. I don’t think it was healthy, but back then we felt like superheroes and nothing could stop us.

The environment pushed us to work at the limit. Every single thing around was there to inspire creative thought and team collaboration: white boards, open rooms, cafeterias, and the heroes… because you never knew who will show up at the corner. I gave up on a lunch once just to sneak into Melinda Gates seminar (this one), wouldn’t you?

There is only so long you can survive such intensive craziness, but the lesson learned was clear. In order to achieve you must find or build for yourself the setting that will properly inspire you. True, there is only one Silicon Valley, and many of us struggled upon return to Poland, where things moved at different pace. Still, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to create your own little stimulating environment.

It will not be easy, and you will probably fail a few times. Still, do not get discouraged and remember that in Silicon Valley…

There are no failures, there are only lessons

One thing that you learn quickly at Stanford is that everything is a lesson. Every mistake you make is there to let you draw conclusions, correct, and try again… or “pivot” to something else. The one thing that you will be judged upon is the numer of attempts. Only those who don’t do anything are left in contempt. The mantra is “It is ok to fail.” and everything is about owning the mistakes and move forward.

Sure, life is often not that simple and some mistakes have bigger consequences than others, but at Stanford the experience is everything. It is hard to disregard people for their past mistakes. The failures are like battle scars. They are permanent, but it is up to you if they are the mark of shame or the sign of competence.

Once you get in your mind that there are no failures, only lessons, you quickly understand that the fastest way to success is to…

Get to know the people

There is only so much you can do alone. The entire Silicon Valley understands that. The great importance is given to working with the right people. Your true strength and degree of success depend on the team you work with.

At Stanford, homework was usually a team work. Groups were different in every class, and we needed to learn how to work with a different pack every time. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes not. We were quite diverse group of scholars at different age, career path, speciality, experience, and character. Every single one of us was looking for or wanted something different. But there we were, stuck with each other, needed to work together. So we did, and it was an amazing experience. The lesson was simple. There are great people around you, and you can work together with anyone. You just need to find what you have in common, and build on that.

The Top 500 Innovators Programme was an unbelievable experience. Over the years total five hundred people were trained at the top world universities: Stanford University (US), but also University of Berkeley California (US), and Cambridge University (UK). We came back to Poland motivated and full of ideas.

Years have passed and some of us are still in touch, some collaborate on research, some have became friends. Many are now involved in Top 500 Innovators Alumni Association. They are implementing the best practices right here in Poland, encouraging collaboration and building bridges between representatives of science, technology transfer, and business. Together, they have written many stories…