Fierce Collaboration: The Competitions that Drive Innovation

January 12, 2021 | Atlanta, GA

The original story is published on the website of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine and has been edited for the College of Sciences website.


We live in a country that reveres the myth of the lone genius: tinkerers who work tirelessly in labs or launch tiny startups from their garages, waiting for their eureka moment. The only problem? It’s exactly that: a myth. A peek behind the curtain shows that true progress typically happens through collaboration. It’s rarely seamless and it can get prickly, but those who find the right collaborators—people who push one another to think bigger and to find solutions beyond the status quo—are pushing the world further, faster.

Share the Vision, Debate the Details: Greg Gibson and Joshua Weitz

Greg Gibson, a professor in Georgia Tech’s department of biological sciences, isn’t afraid of pessimism. “I’m not exactly known as warm and fuzzy,” he says, with just a hint of self-deprecation.

It’s a personality trait that one might not choose as a strategy for making friends and influencing people. But in the fight against Covid-19—particularly in the early days, when politicians and others offered unrealistically rosy projections of the virus’s trajectory—Gibson envisioned the worst-case-scenario. His mindset turned out to be undeniably valuable.

Gibson was aware of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the virus as early as last February. He and Joshua Weitz, also a professor in the department of biological sciences, sometimes crossed paths in a local coffee shop and speculated about what might be ahead.

Within weeks, both were working on important but separate Covid projects. Weitz was working on models to understand the potential spread of Covid, among a handful of projects. Gibson was working with a team to solve challenges closer to home: deciding on the right testing approach for Georgia Tech, and overcoming legal and logistical hurdles to do it effectively. Early in the summer, Weitz joined Gibson on the team that was developing Tech’s campus response to the pandemic.

Gibson had long advocated for simple saliva tests. “The science is dead-easy,” he says, and the cost felt within reach. Still, the scale that he had been advocating for—about 200 tests a day for Georgia Tech’s community of about 15,000—seemed daunting.

When Weitz joined the team, he immediately saw the potential in Gibson’s insistence on pursuing a saliva-based test. “It’s a lot more pleasant than having a Q-tip in your brain,” Weitz jokes.

But Weitz worried that the scale that seemed formidable to Gibson was not ambitious enough. While Gibson’s expertise as a geneticist helped him see the best option for testing, Weitz’s knowledge of quantitative bioscience modeling gave him insight on the levels of testing that would be essential to fight the growth in cases. “I had developed models that showed the potential value of using much-larger-scale tests as an intervention,” he says. “Greg and I started talking about whether it was possible to scale up from hundreds of tests per day to thousands.”

The self-proclaimed “Mr. Skeptic” had his doubts about the necessity of this type of scale. But then he sat down and did the math. “When I did the calculations myself, I was like, ‘Yeah, he’s right,’ ” Gibson says.

Weitz says that their unique perspectives helped push the project forward successfully. “We weren’t trying to make conceptual points,” he says. “We were trying to intervene to improve the health of our community.”

It took a heroic effort of many—late nights, sustained ingenuity, and a heaping helping of luck—but Georgia Tech was able to dramatically scale up its testing just as returning students began arriving back at campus. As of press time, positivity rates, after an initial spike, have hovered around 1 percent within Georgia Tech’s student community, with far lower positivity rates amongst staff and faculty, a success story by almost any measure.

Even Gibson admits being pleasantly surprised. “Everything that has been put together has far exceeded my expectations,” he says.

Weitz couldn’t help but be pleased by his colleague’s growing hopefulness. This past fall, he sent Gibson a T-shirt to acknowledge their work together. It was emblazoned with a single word: “Optimist.”

When 1+1>2: Tamara Bogdanović and Laura Cadonati

If there is a lesson to be learned in these stories of collaboration, it might just be that collaborators benefit not when they share identical worldviews, but when they are able to articulate—and eventually find commonalities in—distinctly different ones. Collaborators should agree on the big vision, but they should be particularly flexible when it comes to the path they use to get there.

For example, Georgia Tech physics professors Tamara Bogdanović and Laura Cadonati serve as the new leaders of the Institute’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics. The pair both started in August (Cadonati as director, Bogdanović as associate director), and they work together closely to tackle wide-ranging goals to support initiatives linked to research, recruiting, and outreach.

Bogdanović’s primary training is in astronomy and Cadonati’s is in physics. Because of the duo’s distinct interests and expertise, they know they will come at problems from different perspectives and won’t make obvious errors as a result. “It’s always good to have a sanity check on your own thoughts and ideas,” says Bogdanović.

In fact, says Cadonati, the worst type of collaboration is when there is perfect alignment. “Diversity in training, opinion, and style is never a problem,” she says. “What complicates things is when people are too similar—they end up competing for the same resources and the same recognition.”

Read the full article on Georgia Tech Alumni Association website.

For More Information Contact

Grace Pietkiewicz
Communications Assistant