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Case One: Alternative Therapies and Awkward Collaborations

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RCR Casebook: Collaboration

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Dr. Amy Binder, a biomedical scientist at one of the top US medical schools, entered into a collaboration with Dr. Xing Zhao, a premier chemist at one of the best universities in China. The goal of the research was to isolate, purify and test four compounds found in traditional Chinese herbal therapy to slow cancer growth in humans, on their ability to block progression of the cell cycle in vitro. As part of the collaboration, Dr. Zhao has sent a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Jin Mei, to Dr. Binder’s lab, to learn the in vitro cell culture work. If Dr. Mei can learn the cell culture methods, she can bring that knowledge back to her home institution, and it is likely that she will therefore earn a faculty position there.

Dr. Mei arrives at Dr. Binder’s lab with the four samples that she has isolated and purified. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectroscopy confirm that they are the correct compounds and are highly pure. Dr. Binder arranges to have her Research Associate, Ben Gomez, work with Dr. Mei on the cell culture assays. They work in parallel, so Dr. Mei can learn all of the techniques. However, after three months of work, Ben is convinced that teaching Dr. Mei is a hopeless task. He goes into Dr. Binder’s office to explain why. The good news is that in his own experiments, the four compounds look extremely promising: they have a low toxicity and yet they seem to halt progression through the cell cycle. On the other hand, Dr. Mei’s experiments have failed miserably. She just does not seem to be able to learn the cell culture techniques. Her cultures are constantly getting contaminated, meaning that she is failing to acquire sterile technique. Also, she makes thoughtless mistakes, like diluting the compounds in water rather than buffered saline, so that the controls (no added compound) alone kill the cells. In addition, Dr. Mei just cannot get the hang of the microscope; it may take her two hours to count cells for viability on a hemocytometer because she can never get the cells into the focal plane. Ben has been very patient and persistent with her, but he no longer feels confident that he can successfully teach her. Dr. Mei has now been separated from her small child for three months, is living in a strange land with no friends, and cannot wait to return to her home next month; but she would be disgraced to return home without succeeding.

Dr. Binder feels caught between a rock and a hard place. While the experiments have been a great success, one of the central goals of the collaboration—enabling Dr. Mei to bring biological techniques to her home institution—has failed. Dr. Binder’s email communications with Dr. Zhao are difficult because of language issues, and she does not think she can write an email to him that would accurately reflect the situation. Further, Dr. Binder thinks very highly of Dr. Mei, who is a hardworking, dedicated and productive chemist, even if she is lacking in the specific skills needed to excel at culturing cells in vitro. Saying anything negative about Dr. Mei would cause her great embarrassment, and may end the progress of her scientific career in China. And, scientifically, Dr. Binder is certain that this collaboration has the potential to make important contributions to the treatment of cancer! However, Dr. Binder feels that Ben may have earned a first author position on the manuscript, rather than Dr. Mei, since really all of the figures in the paper coming from her lab will have been generated from data that Ben, rather than Dr. Mei, produced. Dr. Binder does not want to damage her relationship with Dr. Zhao by changing authorship order from what was originally agreed—there is so much more they could do together. And of course, Dr. Binder is also fearful of ongoing collaboration with Drs. Zhao and Mei if he cannot trust that their data has been obtained in a trustworthy manner.

What should Dr. Binder do?

Discussion Questions for the Facilitator

  • Were the expectations of the collaboration clearly defined?
  • Were the expectations reasonable?
  • Are skills used in the biological sciences different from those used in the physical sciences? Was Dr. Mei a good fit with this post-doctoral fellowship opportunity?
  • Is transfer of methodologies between scientific institutions important? Does one institution bear any responsibility for assisting another institution?
  • How could language barriers be addressed? Could cultural barriers have been better addressed in this scenario?

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