Don Nelson had a realization prior to developing a large proposal that spanned institutions and disciplines—the scale and scope were beyond his capacity, and he would need to expand his skills.
“Most of my experience to date has been on doing research itself, without having to dedicate significant time to organization and management issues,” said Nelson, associate professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “Writing large-scale proposals and managing teams is a very different undertaking.”
Fortunately, he was able to join the first cohort of the Leading Large Integrative Research Teams workshop series, or L2-IRT. The program is designed specifically to help faculty develop the skills needed for creating and managing interdisciplinary teams, said Larry Hornak, professor and associate vice president for integrative team initiatives in the Office of Research.
“There’s an increased interest in and need for effective interdisciplinary research teams, but there’s also a recognition that it’s challenging for the leaders of those teams to have the time, the background and the skills to lead effectively,” he said. “This is an effort to help faculty who have already done interdisciplinary research at some scale to be better prepared to lead the large, cross-cutting teams that are required for externally funded, institute-scale awards.”
Since August, eight faculty members have been meeting monthly for workshops focused on topics including team development, leadership and management; crafting an integrative team organization, management and operational plan; and building long-term, mutually beneficial external partnerships. The cohort will meet twice more before the end of spring semester.
Each session builds on the last, helping faculty to develop a large skill set, according to Virginia Bacon Talati, program coordinator with the office for integrative team initiatives.
“One of the first things participants do is work with Larry to develop their vision, to figure out their dream work,” she said. “A lot of those visions require interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work.”
That’s where Dorothy Carter comes in.
“I’m particularly interested in the teamwork and collaboration that’s necessary in order to advance big scientific breakthroughs,” said Carter, assistant professor of industrial-organizational psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “Whether it’s climate change or vaccine distribution or global health care, it requires a lot of people from different areas of expertise.”
Carter studies the science of team science, which is about how to make those collaborations work. The scientific advancements with deepest impact are those that combine deep disciplinary expertise and novel approaches, but those are rare, she said.
“It’s tough for us to work across boundaries, plus scientists develop deep expertise in their field but are not necessarily trained to lead large organizations.”
For Nelson, the workshops have greatly improved an otherwise arduous process.
“Learning those skills on your own could be a slow and painful process,” he said. “Going through the workshops has increased my excitement with my own research, because I start to see how I can move from nebulous ideas about the possibilities of a large proposal to concrete research ideas and planning.”
Connecting with other faculty has made Nelson consider possible future collaborations—and that’s one of the points, according to Hornak.
“We’re hoping that as we run this, over time we can create a mentoring network where past cohorts can help faculty who are just starting out leading large teams,” he said.
“All of the people in this cohort are rock stars in their areas. They’re really successful, fantastic researchers,” Carter said. “They’re not just getting information from me and Larry and Virginia and our speakers—they’re getting a lot of information from each other.”
The idea is to create a team science ecosystem where faculty can access resources, connect with each other and get help, but also help each other.
“In this kind of environment, faculty will be able to develop projects where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, which is what funding agencies want,” Hornak said. “There’s no cookie-cutter way to achieve that, so we’re trying to help them—and have them help each other—with that process.”
The second cohort of the L2-IRT program will begin in fall. Nominations for the 2021-22 academic year cohort are open on the program’s website and will close May 1.