Teosinte for two

An informal collaboration between colleagues with a shared interest in corn and its ancient ancestor teosinte makes science sing.

There's nothing better than having a colleague who thinks like you do – unless it's having one that doesn't. 

Peter Tiffin and Nathan Springer, colleagues in the Department of Plant Biology, have found both in each other. Discipline-wise, the two are fairly distinct: Tiffin, an evolutionary biologist, studies how variation and natural selection shape diversity in populations, while Springer, a molecular geneticist, explores how genes and the mechanisms controlling them create the unique characteristics of individuals.

But when it comes to corn and its ancient predecessor, teosinte, their professional interests converge. Over the past several years the two have formed a sort of a super-scientist, working together on a variety of projects at the intersection of their disciplines to shed new light on complex questions of evolution, heredity and domestication that neither would be likely to elucidate alone.

“They’re both very good in their areas,” says department head Gary Muehlbauer, “They’re combining their skill sets to do things that are even better.”

Location, location, location

Neither Springer nor Tiffin really recalls how their scientific buddy system began. But both remember the circumstances that shifted it into high gear five years ago or so. Genomics – the study of the molecular basis of heredity – was advancing rapidly, offering a growing platform for interaction. Then an office near Tiffin’s opened up, and Springer moved from another hall into the vacant space. That changed everything: As in real estate, it turns out, in scientific collaboration location is key.

“To get to the bathroom, I have to walk past his office,” Springer says. Tiffin, for his part, now goes by Springer’s door each morning on his way to his own. It’s easy to pause in passing with a problem to solve or a thought in need of another point of view.

 “New ideas rarely appear in a mind fully formed; instead, an idea will arise and it needs further shaping and polishing. Peter is the person I go to with new ideas, and it is his background and questioning personality that helps shape and polish those ideas,” Springer says.

“That regular contact is really important,” Tiffin says. “If we share 50 ideas casually, every so often one sticks.”

More than once, casual conversations have evolved into ideas for new questions to collaboratively ask – and answer. So far the two have published four papers together on the genetics of corn, including a high-impact paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this past July exploring domestication from the complementary perches of gene expression analysis and population genetic analysis.

“[Peter] thought we could apply the techniques routinely used in my group to provide new insights into maize domestication,” Springer says. “The whole paper was basically an exercise in applying one set of technologies to a question they had not been used for previously.”

“It was a topic we were both interested in,” Tiffin says. “There had been a lot of looking to try to figure out what gene changes accompanied domestication, but nobody had looked at expression. … Nobody had done it, and we were in a position to do it.”

Similarities and differences

What makes this unusual collaboration click?

It helps that Springer and Tiffin are at similar stages of their career and personal lives, and have a similar communication style, with a focus on efficiency and candor. They’re both comfortable interrupting and being interrupted. And they’re equally OK with cutting the conversation short if something else beckons.

“We both tend to be fairly efficient,” Springer says. “We want to get things done. We’re not afraid to walk out of a conversation. We both will laugh. We will both say things that aren’t very nice. If his idea is no good, I’ll tell him.”

But interestingly, differences seem to enrich their interactions as well.

“The biggest advantage for Peter and me is that we speak different languages,” Springer says. “Our big questions intersect, but we approach them from different directions. It allows me to ask additional questions, to look at my work in a different light than I could do by myself.”

“I’ll be sitting in my office with a list of genes that looks interesting but I don’t know why,” Tiffin says. Springer will happily offer insights. “It’s easy to generate data that aren’t exactly what you think they are,” Tiffin says. “It forces me to reassess my assumptions.”

Whatever the secret, it’s clear it spells success – for Springer, for Tiffin and for both their disciplines.

“Productive and enjoyable collaboration is a nice way to do science,” Tiffin sums up. “It allows you to learn more and explore questions you couldn’t otherwise.”

– Mary Hoff