Collaboration.  

If I had just one word to describe my past summer, that’d be it. For eight weeks, I participated in the Harvard Summer School Study Abroad Biology and Urban Development Program in Paris, France with Professors Robert Lue and Alain Viel.  While I unfortunately did not learn French—my vocabulary was painfully limited to greetings and butchered attempts to order food—I did learn about connecting seemingly distant disciplines to find new ways to approach problems.

A view of the Eiffel Tower taken at night on Bastille Day, on the 21st floor of Montparnasse Tower, where we had class!A view of the Eiffel Tower taken at night on Bastille Day, on the 21st floor of Montparnasse Tower, where we had class!

Specifically, the course focused on using biological ideas as a framework to think about solutions to urban issues. So, how does that work? For example, the body has different processes of regulating opposing energy pathways such as glycolysis—a process that breaks down glucose to produce energy—and gluconeogenesis, which synthesizes glucose. When blood sugar is high, glycolysis is activated; when blood sugar is low, gluconeogenesis goes into effect. In essence, the body enacts opposing “policies” depending on circumstance, and often both processes are simultaneously activated in different areas.

This method of regulation can be seen in Paris’ approach to its east and west regions. In the west, many businesses exist and affordable housing is limited. The east witnesses the opposite trends. Paris enacted policies in the west to limit businesses and incentivize the creation of low income housing. In the east, the opposite policies were applied. In this case, Paris’ government officials were not necessarily inspired by biological metaphors. Yet, it is an example of how a simple idea from a biological phenomenon can exist in a wholly different discipline. Professors Lue and Viel then wondered: how else can biology help us with urban development?

How else can biology help us with urban development?

The course was project-based, and we worked in teams of four. The teaching staff assigned the forty total students into groups, placing students of different backgrounds (two Harvard, two French) in each team—essentially micro-models of the multi-interdisciplinary ethos of the whole course. Our main assignment was to tackle one or more of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and to come up with innovative solutions using biological concepts as inspiration.

The whole crew at city hall!The whole crew at city hall!

Our main assignment was to tackle one or more of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and to come up with innovative solutions using biological concepts as inspiration.

My team focused on the issues of climate change and social inequalities. After multiple processes of ideation, we came up with our specific subject: food waste. We then proposed a specific solution—Foodlib’, which is the name of our idea of placing community fridges and pantries near metro stations. There are many more details, and if you would like to read more about our thinking, why we chose food waste (the statistics are appalling), and why we chose community fridges, here is a link to our abstract, design plan, and short film.

I am so incredibly proud of this project, and I am so proud of my team. This project is a product of our time, effort, and love, but it is a mere representation of just how much time, effort and love we put into it. Similarly, the project marks a wonderful achievement, but it is only a mere success in comparison to the true success we experienced in our summer—that of learning how to work in a group.

At a community dinner - laughing, cooking, and bringing us all closer together.At a community dinner - laughing, cooking, and bringing us all closer together.

In colleges, and to some degree in high schools, there is an unfortunate emphasis on individual achievement. Over the summer, we quickly learned that we were dependent on each other. This came in all forms, and most basically, in the form of the language barrier. My Harvard teammate and I spoke limited French, so, we fundamentally needed to trust and depend on our French counterparts. My Harvard teammate and I needed to trust each other. Trust is foundational to teamwork, and crucially, it is a hallmark of one’s maturation process. Thus, learning how to work in a team is a means to maturity. 

Trust is foundational to teamwork, and crucially, it is a hallmark of one’s maturation process. Thus, learning how to work in a team is a means to maturity. 

I encourage all my peers to seek opportunities that allow them to work in a group, especially my peers who are passionate about the environment. From a completely biased stance, I truly recommend the summer program in Paris, which wonderfully combines the teamwork aspect with the opportunities to tackle environmental problems.

Collaboration trumps competition, any day. More than ever, we must learn not just to work together, but how to. Efficient teamwork produces results. Collaboration is crucial especially in the field of sustainability. The healing of our planet cannot come from the efforts of a few individuals, but from the dedication of a collaborating majority.

Environmentalists often get a bad rap. Effective communication and working with people across disciplines are thus hugely important. These skills allow us to achieve the remarkable: the transference of awareness, at the very least, or at best, the transference of passion. 

Collaboration is crucial especially in the field of sustainability. The healing of our planet cannot come from the efforts of a few individuals, but from the dedication of a collaborating majority.