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“Don’t stay in your lane”: Five questions about Team Science with Debbie DiazGranados

Maybe you wrote it off as a buzzword when you first saw it. But Team Science has guided and shaped cutting edge research at Virginia Commonwealth University from behind the scenes for years.

Understanding it and its value, in fact, has informed the research of some of VCU’s best scientists and physicians.

“Early in my career, I had this misconception that research involved a scientist, a clinician-scientist, and his or her team, and they would just get together and come up with ideas and do a series of experiments, then write a paper and maybe write a grant,” said Patrick Nana-Sinkam, M.D., associate director for career development and mentoring at the Wright Center.

“I didn’t understand the fact that science and medicine are so complex that it’s absolutely essential that, as you seek to answer specific, complicated questions, you have to find partners. You have to partner with experts in other disciplines, experts in disciplines very different from yours.”

The different perspectives were crucial, Nana-Sinkam added, to his research and career arc.

“Science is too complicated for a single lab or a single, linear way of thinking,” he said. “It’s just not possible to tackle some of our most challenging, scientific questions in that manner.”

headshot of Deborah DiazGranados
Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D.

The Wright Center spoke to Debbie DiazGranados, Ph.D., director of evaluation and Team Science at the Wright Center, about Team Science, research consultation and how to set researchers on a cross-disciplinary path.

How do you define Team Science to people outside of the bubble?

Team Science is about being a team player, and it’s about being a boundary-crosser, integrating knowledge from diverse disciplines or perspectives. We don’t want to stay in our lane and look at a problem from one discipline, one perspective, one individual. We want people to reach out deliberately, intentionally creating teams to solve problems.

I think of Team Science as having two critical parts: leading and working in effective teams – the nuts and bolts of collaboration – and being able to integrate knowledge, perspectives, methodologies from those on the team. It’s the process of finding those different perspectives, being open to including those different perspectives when thinking about scientific problems, and the ability to truly integrate the knowledge in a way that complements the study and the solution of a complex problem.

To solve our most complex problems faced by the entire globe, we have to work collaboratively. We can’t solve them myopically, through the lens of a single discipline.

What’s an example of a research project that has employed Team Science? 

The famous example is where theoretical physicists and applied physicists, who were truly engaging in cross-method and cross-theory work, created the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. That was thousands of people working on this one, enormously complex project. But that was Team Science in action — people in different areas of physics working together to make it happen.

More locally, we put on a workshop for a project recently where several teams had come together to start a new project. They came to learn skills in communication and Team Science. The workshop provided them with guidance on how to collectively brainstorm and come up with goals and next steps that the entire team could really get behind.

That workshop was a pretty clear example of observing each of the team members ask questions and clarify assumptions and communicate in ways that they hadn’t previously done — in a dedicated hour and a half time.

What does a Team Science consultation look like?

People often come to me and say, ‘I’m the PI on this grant and I feel like I’m having a hard time getting everybody on board and getting the work accomplished that we said we would accomplish.’

The default reason that people think teams don’t always function well or effectively is they think it’s a communication issue. But there’s a lot of layers to that communication ‘onion.’ Sometimes it’s not a communication issue; it’s a trust issue. And I can help people get to the root of it.

I can lead and facilitate either a workshop like the one I just described or one that’s specific to the project in question. I can help form new, cross-discipline teams or identify the core of the team-related problem that someone is trying to solve.

People also contact me to ask about leading their labs, overseeing their staff and their technicians — how best to hire them and lead them through the work that needs to be done in the lab.

But there are many other opportunities for consultation. Maybe you’re just stuck and require an external person with expertise and knowledge in the space of collaboration. That’s what I’m here for.

How do you codify cross-disciplinary collaboration into a research project, make it part of the process, especially now that so much work happens remotely?

I challenge my students and consultees to rethink this moment we’re in as an opportunity to build deeper connections with colleagues and create more intentional collaborations.

Team Science is often an afterthought for researchers, because people are trying to find solutions to diseases, environmental issues and other complex issues. They might think of it when they’re frustrated or running into problems in their study. But foresight and planning are ideal.

Teams that are effective are those who have built in processes that allow them to experience a setback or recuperate from an error and bounce back. Team Science doesn’t create error-free teams or problem-free teams, but it’s about building resilience into your work.

I’ve heard many stories of co-PIs and researchers who’ve worked with someone for 25 years and then something happened and that partnership is now so fractured that they aren’t working together anymore. Team Science consultations can help avoid that.

And that’s not to say that you’re never going to have conflict-free collaboration. It’s that you’re going to have productive conflict in a collaboration that can help push the study forward, push one another to be better scientists, better faculty members, better health care providers.

How do you evaluate the science of good teams?

It’s hard. We’re still learning to evaluate people as team scientists, because we’re still understanding collaboration and how people work together. There’s decades of research that began with research into marriages: how couples interacted, how they argued, how they engaged in conflict — that was one of the first windows into what we know about how people work together.

We can draw from that research in understanding what makes teams effective. And that’s my background — research in the space of psychology and organizational behavior.

So VCU researchers have a resource in me, at the Wright Center.

Learn more about Team Science, and contact DiazGranados for a consultation at (804) 827-0142 or deborah.diazgranados@vcuhealth.org

DiazGranados teaches CCTR 640, “Team Science Theory & Practice,” during the VCU spring semester.

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