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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.

Aerial photography of VCU's Monroe Park campus and downtown Richmond, VA at night time.

Blood pressure, proteins and precision health: Three research projects funded by the Wright Center

The Wright Center has awarded three VCU researchers grants from its Endowment Fund for health sciences research.

The awards support preliminary studies that enable researchers to develop hypotheses, collect preliminary data and establish methods necessary for successful external funding.

Lana Sargent, Ph.D., RN, CRNP, assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing’s Department of Adult Health and Nursing Systems, was awarded for her project: “The association of ambulatory blood pressure phenotypes with cognition in community-dwelling older adults: A pilot study.” Collaborators include Dave Dixon, Pharm.D., and Elvin Price, Pharm.D., Ph.D.

Weihua Qiu, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Department of Medicinal Chemistry, was awarded for her project: “Active mechanism of mycobacterial membrane protein large 3 and its inhibition by SQ109.” Qiu’s co-principal investigator is Youzhong Guo, Ph.D.

And Youssef Roman, Pharm.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU School of Pharmacy’s Department of Pharmacotherapy and Outcomes Science, was awarded for his project: “Cardiometabolic genomics and pharmacogenomics investigations in Filipino Americans: Steps towards precision health.” Roman will work with a community partner, the Filipino American Association of Central Virginia.

Wright Center Endowment Fund grants are awarded four times a year – three of those times to individual investigators and small groups of investigators. VCU faculty from both the MCV and Monroe Park campuses are encouraged to apply.

Congrats to Sargent, Qiu and Roman!

The next deadline for the grant is May 1, for a multi-school project funded at up to $130,000.

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Left to right: Lana Sargent, Weihua Qiu and Youssef Roman
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The Wright Center is here to help with your research resolutions

Last year did not go as planned for anyone. But 2021 will slowly, we hope, bring a return to the new normal in our professional lives.

If more or better health-related research at VCU is one of your 2021 resolutions, the Wright Center can help. Find your research resolution below and see how.

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Wright Center events bring together VCU research leaders, health care providers and research professionals on timely topics.

Upcoming events include:

Bookmark the Wright Center’s calendar and make sure you’re signed up for the regular newsletter to be alerted of more upcoming events.

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The Wright Center’s funding opportunities include a few with upcoming deadlines:

  • The Endowment Fund for grant to individuals and small groups of investigations has a Feb. 1 deadline for its up-to-$50,000 award.
  • The Pilot Imaging Fund for grants up to $25,000 is accepting applications until Feb. 21 from investigators looking to use the Wright Center’s Collaborative Advanced Research Imaging (CARI) facility.
  • And the Clinical Research Voucher Program has a rolling deadline for investigators looking for funding to use VCU Health clinical research facilities and services.

Find more funding opportunities at the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation’s website and in RAMS-SPOT.

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Request access to a cohort discovery program that helps investigators test feasibility and collaborate with other institutions.

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Through the Wright Center, you can access Protocol Builder, a secure, cloud-based technology that helps investigators write interventional or observational research protocols. Find links and resources on protocol development. Read More

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Wright Center professor joins board of international organization

Deborah DiazGranados, Ph.D., the Wright Center’s director of evaluation and co-director of Team Science, has been voted in as a board member of the International Network for the Science of Team Science, a nonprofit for researchers, scholars, policymakers and institutional leaders engaged in enhancing and fostering team science.

The network held a virtual four-day conference last week, the 11th annual Science of Team Science Conference, co-hosted by Duke University. DiazGranados presented on practical insights of doing team science during the pandemic.

Joined by researchers from Duke, North Carolina State University, University of California, Irvine and University of Central Florida, DiazGranados offered expertise on team formation, research leadership and overcoming the challenges to conducting research in unprecedented times.

Team science is an effort to address scientific challenges through the collaboration of professionals trained in different fields. And DiazGranados, who is an organizational psychologist and a professor in VCU’s School of Medicine, brings knowledge of emerging scholars’ needs in clinical and translational science to the diverse board of the network.

Her tenure on the board begins on July 1 and is a 3-year term.

Zero to Sixty: The Wright Center’s rapid response to COVID-19

The Wright Center has been on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19 since March.

As Virginia Commonwealth University’s home for interdisciplinary human health research, the center is uniquely positioned to act as a bridge between the physicians, faculty, researchers and staff that are engaged in fighting the pandemic on multiple fronts.

And it’s done just that.

Before the government-mandated shutdown took effect, several proposed projects had been uploaded to VCU’s research management system run out of the Wright Center, OnCore. And center staff had activated to help shepherd protocols through the Institutional Review Board and other processes.

Arun Sanyal, M.D.

By late March, Wright Center Associate Director Arun Sanyal, M.D., had partnered with Gilead to bring remdesivir treatment trials to VCU. And on May 1, armed with data that VCU’s trial helped provide, the FDA issued emergency authorized use of the drug.

The Wright Center has worked diligently to prioritize and fast track other drug treatment trials based on the best available science and the drugs’ potential for large-scale efficacy. The center’s director, F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., leads a committee with several other center faculty that works to assess and evaluate proposed COVID-19 trials.

At least seven COVID-19 drug treatment trials have activated, many in record time. Trials that might take months to get off the ground have found approval within days, thanks to the Wright Center and staff at the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation (OVPRI).

Wright Center Associate Director Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D, is a lead on two studies that tackle the dangerous inflammatory response that COVID-19 patients sometimes experience:

F. Gerard Moeller, M.D.
  • Sarilumab, which was developed for rheumatoid arthritis, and
  • Canakinumab, which was developed to treat a series of rare auto-inflammatory diseases and a type of juvenile arthritis.

Benjamin Van Tassell, Pharm.D., a former KL2 scholar and now a member of Wright Center’s KL2 Oversight Committee, is involved in the latter trial. His and Abbate’s long-standing research into inflammation, supported in part by the Wright Center, has been crucial to VCU’s ability to bring cutting-edge treatment to its patients during COVID-19.

In May, with the help of Wright Center Clinical Research Unit staff, clinical trials for some of the experimental COVID-19 treatment drugs were expanded to VCU Health’s Community Memorial Hospital in South Hill, Virginia, expanding access to those drugs.

Antonio Abbate, M.D., Ph.D.

In addition to the drug treatment trials, the Wright Center has worked to fast track projects like a potential treatment for COVID-19 using the plasma of coronavirus survivors. More than a dozen registries for analyzing COVID patient data and vitals are underway. And multiple technologies and devices that fill critical equipment needs are in development or pending approval.

The Wright Center’s informatics team, under the leadership of Tamas Gal, Ph.D., MBA, which helps compile and analyze clinical data, has re-oriented their programming projects toward registries, surveys, portals and application processes, like a survey for those who might’ve noticed a change in their smell or taste abilities – one of the virus’ symptoms.

Feeding all this new research is an influx of funds flowing toward virus-related projects.

The Wright Center contributed $100,000 to the OVPRI’s COVID-19 rapid research funding opportunity, which has yielded grant awards to 31 recipients, including several clinical and translational science projects. Wright Center KL2 Scholar Guizhi “Julian” Zhu, Ph.D., was one of those recipients, for his work on a simple, at-home vaccine delivery mechanism.

The Wright Center staff and research administrators continue to contribute the research infrastructure and compliance expertise to projects that seek to fill worldwide gaps in equipment supply.

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The 3D-printed ventilator created by an interdisciplinary team connected by the Wright Center. (Photo courtesy of Trevor Beck Frost)

The Wright Center was instrumental in connecting interdisciplinary researchers and clinicians for a 3D-printed ventilator, the plans for which will be made freely available. And Wright Center Researcher Stephen L. Kates, M.D., helped develop a sterilization pilot program to safely decontaminate N95 masks for VCU Health employees.

OVPRI, in collaboration with the Wright Center, is foregoing certain typical licensing fees during the pandemic in order to facilitate the research and development that will help combat COVID-19 collaboratively.

Annual Clinical Trials Day took on a new meaning this year, as the community rallied around healthcare providers. A COVID-19 patient in a trial run by Abbate told her story, and Abbate, Joan Greer, and Lauren Harris discussed clinical trials for a public audience.

Similarly, Wright Center researchers have acted as experts for media outlets – providing a crucial science-based perspective for the community during this public health crisis. Among others:

Much of the research that was underway when COVID-19 hit has been paused, and the Wright Center worked with OVPRI to create research continuity guidance, so that researchers would have some template for adapting their important work.

Many studies have adapted using telehealth technologies that Wright Center has led the way in. Richard Sterling, M.D., whose research has been heavily supported by the Wright Center, spoke to VCU News about telehealth in the time of a pandemic, as doctors and patients sought alternatives to in-person visits and checkups.

Suffice it to say, the Wright Center has made VCU’s rapid response to COVID-19 possible – in more ways than one.

Ph.D. student receives grant to attend AMIA Symposium

An earlier version of this story was published by VCU Engineering

Computer science doctoral candidate Amy Olex received a travel grant to attend the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) 2019 Annual Symposium held in November in Washington, D.C. This event is considered the foremost symposium for the science and practice of biomedical informatics in the U.S.

Olex’ adviser is Bridget McInnes, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science.

One of eight graduate students selected nationally to receive this grant, Olex attended the conference’s leadership and awards reception as well as its gala.

Olex also won second place in the conference’s graduate student symposium for her research presentation. Her research focuses on clinical natural language processing and includes collaborations with researchers at VCU’s Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research to identify computational phenotypes to better address the opioid epidemic.

Olex’s opioid research was conducted in collaboration with Wright Center director, Dr. Gerry Moeller, director of research informatics, Dr. Tamas Gal, and members of the center’s clinical research informatics core under the management of Tim Aro. She is also working with the director of evaluation and team science at the Wright Center, Dr. Deborah DiazGranados, on another project that aims to aid medical educators in identifying challenges medical students face in their 4th year.

“Being an awardee of the LEAD Fund Travel Grant has led to many new contacts and opened doors to many new collaborations and career advancement opportunities,” Olex said.

Computer science doctoral candidate Amy Olex

World Sepsis Day: September 13

Every three-to-four seconds, someone in the world dies of sepsis. The life-threatening condition that is caused by the body’s response to an infection can lead to rapid tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

Since 2013, Wright Center associate director of team science Alpha A. “Berry” Fowler III, M.D., has been leading multicenter National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trials to determine if high doses of vitamin C are useful in treating septic lung injury. “We showed that vitamin C had a dramatic effect on patient survival,” Fowler said in a recent interview.

The research is evidence of what is possible at a Clinical and Translational Science Award-funded program. “Clinical and translational research is very important, and here at VCU we are maximizing clinical research through the many trials that are currently ongoing to help save lives,” Fowler said.

Read more about the VCU-led clinical trial: news.vcu.edu/article/You_literally_could_see_day_by_day_her_Xrays_getting_better_and

Community engagement transcends translational science spectrum at annual conference

Dr. Gerry Moeller speaks animatedly wearing a suit in front of a mustard yellow wall
Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D. Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

By Anne Dreyfuss
VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

At the Virginia Commonwealth University Community Engagement Institute on May 14, Wright Center Director F. Gerard Moeller, M.D., discussed how he harnesses community-academic partnerships to address the opioid epidemic.

“Virginia has succumbed to the opioid overdose epidemic just like the rest of the country, and the patterns vary significantly from one county to the next,” he said. “Dealing effectively with this is going to require a community-engaged approach. We will not have an impact without fostering partnerships with our community.”

The mantra of community members’ fundamental role in impactful translational research echoed throughout the two-day conference held on the VCU Monroe Park Campus, where more than 80 community-engaged scholars gathered to explore the power and potential of university-community partnerships.

“The Community Engagement Institute provided us with an opportunity to connect and re-establish existing connections with people who are energized about continuously improving our community engagement efforts,” said Wright Center community engagement associate Alicia Aroche, who helped plan the conference and presented on best practices for communicating about the work of community-academic partnerships.

Since May 2014, the Wright Center and the VCU Division of Community Engagement have partnered annually to host the event that unites academic and community stakeholders who share a commitment to solving challenges through community-academic collaboration. “When you have complex problems, it takes people with varying expertise from the community and academic centers to solve them,” said VCU Division of Community Engagement vice provost Cathy Howard, Ph.D. Through interactive workshops, attendees built skills around initiating and sustaining community-academic partnerships, as well as assessing and communicating the work of such partnerships.

“Partnering with our communities allows us to do better research,” said Wright Center community-engaged research co-director Alex Krist, M.D.

The three Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholars smile for a photo. They are all wearing cardigans.
Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholars (from left to right) Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.; Mario Acunzo, M.D.; and Elizabeth Wolf, M.D. Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations.

Krist is a mentor to Wright Center Clinical Research KL2 Scholar Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., who is working on a community-engagement project that aims to identify geographic and patient-level risk factors for inadequate prenatal and well-child care in the Greater Richmond Region. “I attended the Community Engagement Institute because I wanted to learn more about best principles that I could apply to my research,” Wolf said. The assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency care at VCU School of Medicine is partnering with the VCU Center on Society and Health’s Engaging Richmond program to develop strategies aimed at reducing health disparities for vulnerable women and children.

The conference was funded in-part through the $21.5 million Clinical and Translational Science Award that the Wright Center received from the National Institutes of Health in 2018. The largest NIH grant in VCU’s history allows the Wright Center to collaborate across disciplines within the university and health system, and with community partners around the region, all with the shared goal of accelerating innovative research that advances the scientific study of human health.

“Events like the annual Community Engagement Institute allow us to better mobilize existing strengths in community engagement and team science to engage stakeholder communities at every translational phase,” Krist said. “Ultimately, we want to work with community members as research partners and form collaborative clinical research translational science teams to improve the health of our communities together.”

Young researchers will further work in prenatal care, cancer immunotherapy and microRNA through career development program

From left to right: Mario Acunzo, M.D., Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D.

By Anne Dreyfuss
VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research

Virginia Commonwealth University this month welcomed three clinician researchers to a mentored career development program designed to prepare them for the health care challenges of the future.

Elizabeth Wolf, M.D., and Mario Acunzo, M.D., both from the VCU School of Medicine, and Guizhi (Julian) Zhu, Ph.D., from the VCU School of Pharmacy, have been named Clinical Research KL2 Scholars. The KL2 program provides early-career researchers with dedicated time to help their findings benefit human health more quickly, while becoming successful, independent translational scientists.

“There is a national need to increase the clinical and translational research workforce and prepare the future generation of research leaders to address imminent health care challenges,” said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D. “Through opportunities like the KL2 research program, VCU is leveraging its interdisciplinary strengths in clinical research and community engagement to make meaningful improvements in patient care.”

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