Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Team Science and the Diversity Advantage

Jeff Kramer

By all accounts, team science is the wave of the future. The days of the principal-investigator-ruled research empire are fading. Increasingly, public and private funding agencies are pushing scientists to tackle the big questions of science by working together across disciplines.

New funding sources and exciting new ways to address vexing problems motivate researchers to join teams. The result can be a kind of academic culture shock; scientists used to working in the old single-investigator mold, still common at universities, have much to learn and many adjustments to make.

It stands to reason that scientists from atypical backgrounds—those who have already experienced acculturation and thus gained skills that allow them to adapt and thrive in an unfamiliar environment—have an advantage. It makes sense, but is it true?

Acculturation and risk-taking

Experienced team scientists and those who study team science say that no hard data exist to answer the question: whether women and minorities—or first-generation college graduates, for that matter—are any better at academic acculturation than their mainstream counterparts. Anecdotally, the answer seems to be "Well, maybe."

Elba Serrano, a professor of biology at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, says that any "outside the box" experience can make someone a good team science player. "Experiences that ask a person to stretch personally or professionally may foster the ability to work in teams," Serrano says.

Courtesy, Elba Serrano
Elba Serrano

A neuroscientist and biophysicist, Serrano is also the director of the Minority Biomedical Research Support-Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program on her campus. The goal of RISE, which is funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, is to increase the number of students from groups underrepresented in biomedical and behavioral research completing Ph.D. degree programs in these fields.

Serrano suggests that data-driven research on the impact of ethnic, gender, and experiential diversity on team science is missing--and needed. But anecdotally, she observes, the ability of women and minorities to adapt to and overcome social obstacles seems to make them better team players. "Women and minorities happen to be used to walking into the room knowing they will have to adapt," she says.

Brown University's Justin Nash agrees--to a point. As part of the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Education and Career Development Program, Nash is in charge of helping trainees and faculty members become transdisciplinary researchers--the kind that will create new fields of science through their partnerships.

Courtesy, Justin Nash
Justin Nash

Nash says experiences faced by scientists with atypical backgrounds can be a plus, helping them develop perseverance, commitment, and fortitude. "They have had to operate in a world that is unfamiliar. They have to live with uncertainty. They have to make more of an effort with communication," says Nash, who is at Miriam Hospital and is an associate professor in the Alpert Medical School at Brown .

However, for Mary Lidstrom, vice provost for research at the University of Washington, Seattle, it is a person's ability to take risks that matters most. Among scientists with atypical backgrounds, she says, "my own experience is that there is a distribution. I know a lot of people in the categories that you are talking about that become very conservative," she says.

And in a team context, "conservative" isn't good. Success as a team scientist, Lidstrom says, depends on motivation and risk-taking. "People who are driven by exciting problems do whatever it takes to get the research done. They just find their way around or over the barriers," she says. "People who have had to struggle are as likely to be risk-takers as not. It is the risk-takers that tend to do really well in this team environment."

Conflict aversion

Courtesy, Mary Lidstrom
Mary Lidstrom

Barbara Gray, a professor of organizational behavior who is also the director of the Center for Research in Conflict and Negotiation in the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University in State College, says nontraditional scientists may have an edge if they also bring with them the ability to navigate a situation in the face of adversity. People who come from one academic world may be capable of joining another, but that may not be enough. "They have to be accepted into the system in which they are working," Gray says.

Gray is among the pioneers of a new field called "The Science of Team Science" by those who study it. She is trying to gather the kind of data that will identify just what makes a good team scientist.

What Gray has found so far is that the people who hold teams together, called brokers by organizational behaviorists, are the ones who are less concerned about conflict and more open. Brokers are the people without whom two other people on the team would not be communicating or collaborating. "These people see across the differences in a way that other members do not report," Gray says.

Courtesy, Barbara Gray
Barbara Gray

Richard Moser, a research psychologist at the National Cancer Institute in Rockville, Maryland, also studies what makes a good transdisciplinary researcher. Moser's job is to evaluate the effectiveness of large research teams like the National Institutes of Health’s Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers (TTURC). The seven university-based centers bring together researchers from different disciplines working to understand tobacco use and nicotine addiction and looking for ways to combat the toll of tobacco use.

Moser says an effective transdisciplinary researcher must be intellectually flexible and be able to tolerate ambiguity and think abstractly. Also essential is the ability to learn a new academic language and to work well with others. That, he acknowledges, is a tall order. "When push comes to shove, transdisciplinary research is hard to do," Moser says.

Working in a new world

Despite the challenges of team science, nutritional biochemist Elizabeth Parks, an associate professor of clinical nutrition and internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and part of the Taskforce for Obesity Research, says she would not want to do science any other way. "Every day, this is a blast. You have all of these exciting ideas and interactions. It's contagious," Parks says.

Cortesy, Richard Moser
Richard Moser

Achieving such a dynamic requires work and good chemistry. Parks says she has learned from her work on a large team that trust is the key. A team player must trust and be trustworthy. That trust extends to the academic acculturation process team members face: Scientists must be willing to ask the proverbial stupid question; just as important is how those questions are answered. "People have to be willing to teach you the basics of their field in a way that is respectful," she says.

According to Nash, anyone who is flexible, insightful, and open to change can learn the skills needed to be a good team player. Nash, who heads a TTURC career development core at Brown, says the postdocs and junior faculty members he trains realize that they are learning not only the science but also how to be a colleague. As a mentor, Nash says, he is quite direct with trainees in letting them know what facilitates and what hinders their ability to be team scientists. "Most people appreciate the opportunity to get guidance," he says.

So, whether or not women, minorities, and other nontraditional scientists make better team players, the proverbial writing is on the wall. Team science is here to stay, and scientists, regardless of their background, will have to learn to play by new rules.

For Serrano, the more important point is that research has shown that more diverse teams are more effective, whatever the reason. "Rigorous science is innovative and challenges the paradigm," Serrano says. "The more people in the room who don't believe in the paradigm, the better for science."