From The Science Student Council

Playing for “Team Science”: Tips for students

Collaborations with other fields can strengthen the scientific and real-world impact of your research.

By Casey D. Calhoun

What is team science and why is it important?

Team science is defined by research in which individuals from various fields join together to work collaboratively toward the resolution of major health and social issues. The ultimate goal of such team-based research is to generate a deeper understanding of important issues and, in doing so, efficiently produce scientific discoveries that are more readily applicable. Collaborative groups conducting team science research may include a wide range of individuals each offering their own unique expertise. They may include not only researchers, but also community members and policy makers. Through the process of sharing and expanding domains of expertise, research endeavors are informed by qualitatively rich discussions and possess greater potential for advancing science towards achieving desired outcomes. For examples of team science in action, see the resources section below.

How can students take part in team science?

As a student you are strongly encouraged to participate in team science. In doing so, you could join in a philosophical movement where expertise is developed communally, greater unity exists between science and application, and the progression of science is more important than any individual researcher. The following are a few initial steps that you can take to become involved.

Think globally

Begin to consider your specific interests within the context of a “bigger picture.” To accomplish this task, broaden the scope of your pursuits and build a knowledge base that goes beyond the information and training provided in your graduate program. As the next generation of psychological scientists, you must begin to critically evaluate where your research falls in the sequence of basic to translational research. Start by asking yourself how your research aims might benefit from stronger connections to basic science or community applications. Further develop this perspective by pursuing learning opportunities outside the realm of your more immediate research training. 

Self-advocacy

Initiate discussions of team science, and your interest in such pursuits, by first speaking with your research advisor(s). Be prepared to explain why this approach is important for you as a scientist and for the progression of science more generally. Educate yourself about team science initiative so that you can provide your advisor with its rationale while also sharing potential ideas for how you might engage in team-based scientific collaborations. Your advisor may already be active in collaborations across departments or in the community and have some words of wisdom to share. Regardless, your advisor can likely provide you with a global perspective on how your particular research interests contribute to a “bigger picture” and which departments, individuals or opportunities might be available to help increase your knowledge and collaborations.

Embrace discomfort

Be bold and venture out into those domains of science, clinical practice and policy that are less familiar and perhaps somewhat intimidating. As part of this process, you may need to take on difficult readings in other fields and decipher their professional jargon. Additionally, attend seminars or lectures outside of your department that are relevant to the overarching objectives of your research. Similarly, advocate within your department by inviting guest speakers who possess expertise that could be broadly beneficial to colleagues. After developing some basic knowledge, contact individuals in other departments or in the community to arrange conversations that may further broaden your understanding of important issues and elicit potential opportunities for collaboration.

A note on self-preservation

Most students will hear of team science and think to themselves “that sounds great, but I haven’t yet established myself in my own area of research” or “I don’t have time to develop knowledge and collaborations outside of my department.” Indeed, it is scary to loosen the reins on the self-preservation efforts that have been the focus of your graduate school work thus far (e.g., master’s thesis, comprehensive exams, publications, dissertation). However, with the inevitable advancement of team science, those who develop cross-disciplinary collaborations will ensure that their research endeavors are informed by, and meaningful to, the broader community of relevant experts and stakeholders.

As part of graduate training, there will always be a need to conduct individual work and produce first-authored publications as indices of competence. But before graduation, try to pursue a few conversations with others outside of your department so that in later conversations (perhaps as part of the hiring process) you will feel prepared to demonstrate your ability to think about how your research fits into the larger scheme of science and real-world application. In becoming part of the next generation of scientists, multi-disciplinary collaborative efforts will likely become a highly valued component of evaluation.

Resources

Websites, articles and online documents about team science:

  • Team Science Toolkit: This is “an interactive website to help you support, conduct and study team-based research.” The website is open-access and allows individuals to add resources to the site’s searchable database.

  • Science of Team Science: Website for the Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS). This institute holds an annual “Science of Team Science” conference, and provides online resources for individuals interested in becoming involved in team-based research.

  • Team Science: This website (created by NUCATS) offers excellent video training modules that provide guidance on collaboration processes inherent to team-based research. The training modules also include interactive components intended to answer researchers’ specific questions about team-based research.

  • Collaboration & Team Science: A field guide (PDF, 2.23MB). National Institutes of Health, Office of the Ombudsman. This guide provides a great deal of information on getting started with team science.

  • Team Science: Heaving Walls & Melding Silos (PDF, 2.06MB). A White Paper produced by Sigma Xi (The Scientific Research Society). This paper provides an excellent description of team science, its history and benefits.

  • Profiles in Team Science. This website was developed with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Discovery Corps Program, and it provides excellent examples of team science “in action.”

References

Disis, M.L., & Slattery, J.T. (2010). The road we must take: Multidisciplinary team science. Science Translational Medicine, 2(22), 1-4. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3000421

Mabry, P.L., Olster, D.H., Morgan, G.D., & Abrams, D.B. (2008). Interdisciplinarity and systems science to improve population health: A view from the NIH office of behavioral and social sciences research. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2S), 211-224. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.05.018

Zerhouni, E.A. (2005). Translational and clinical science: Time for a new vision. New England Journal of Medicine, 353(15), 1621-1623. doi: 10.1056/NEJMsb053723

Casey Calhoun is the clinical science representative on the APA Science Student Council. He is a fourth-year graduate student in the clinical psychology program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.